The Agonies of Childhood

Whatever illness I suffered as a small child would always grind my life to a halt as I endured the agony of whatever the ailment was.  Nausea was claustrophobically ghastly and while my stomach swirled I couldn’t imagine any fate worse than what I was experiencing at that moment.  A headache would lock my brain in a shell of brittle torment and toothache would do the same to my mouth.  Each of these afflictions took over my soul and stopped my life for however long it lasted.

   Self inflicted wounds like scabs on my knees, though a constant reality throughout my childhood, were not as bad as actual illness.  In our early years at 10 Seymour, when any of my siblings or I became unwell, my mother Beth was the perfect nurse, getting us tucked up in bed, taking our temperature with a thermometer and, if it was necessary, calling on the doctor to pay a visit.

   I don’t remember ever disliking a single one of our visiting doctors.  They were always friendly men who arrived wearing a smart sports jacket over a crisp white shirt with a coloured silk tie and carrying one of those magical looking leather bags which opened outwards on both sides from the top and appeared to have an entire pharmacy within.  Beautiful clean little packets of pills, syringes, and tiny vials, all stored in neat hermetically sealed compartments.  It looked like everything the doctor would ever need was in that magic bag.  I didn’t like having injections but I never suffered from a fear of doctors and if a shot was necessary I simply braced myself and looked the other way. 

   One of the first injections I remember having was the polio shot which was the breakthrough serum developed by Dr Jonas Salk.  It was quite a big deal as there was a serious polio epidemic at that time and when the Salk vaccine was determined to be effective it was decided to give it to first and second graders.  I was in the second grade and my brother Jim was in first.

   The most exciting thing about it was the fact that we got to leave our classroom at Homestead and travel over to Strawberry School.  Any excuse to leave school was always exciting.  It happened early in June, 1955 and my teacher was Mrs Dempster.  We were all herded onto a yellow school bus in the morning along with my brother’s class.  This may have been the very first time I ever went on a field trip, as we called them, and it was exhilarating to be leaving the classroom and going somewhere different.  I didn’t enjoy going to school much.  Mrs Dempster was a scary woman with a habit of administering corporal punishment to a regular selection of students whose parents had ticked the box which gave her permission to spank their children.

   So getting out of that torture chamber, even just for a morning, was a wonderful treat.  We knew we were going to have an injection but that was still a bus ride away which, to a seven year old, was kind of like saying it wasn’t going to happen at all.  The ride to Strawberry School on the other side of Highway 101 was a great novelty and our mood was upbeat.  The sun was shining and all was well.  Once we got to Strawberry we simply stood in a line to get our shot from a nurse in a white uniform.  When the moment arrived I simply grimaced and looked away.  Before I had time to think, it was over.

   But the reality of what was happening was impressed upon us and we all knew that being inoculated was important.  The worldwide polio epidemic was very serious indeed.  Two of the Hallinan boys, Butch and Tuffy had both been struck down by polio and Danny also suffered a milder attack not long before we were all vaccinated.  So even though I was very excited about riding the school bus over to Strawberry, I was aware of the significance of Dr Salk’s breakthrough serum.

   But other conditions plagued me while at school like my eyesight.  I didn’t get glasses until I was in the third grade which meant that much of my early years at school were spent sitting in the front row squinting at the blackboard for I was very short sighted and could barely make out what was written.  I think that my headaches, which were frequent, came about because of this eye strain.  The healthcare plan we had was patchy as my father Blackie didn’t begin working as a ship’s clerk on the San Francisco waterfront until later in the 1950s.  I think we must have been sponsored for Permanente health care by someone else in the Longshore Union because all four of us did make visits to Kaiser Hospital in the city and that is definitely where I had my eyes tested for my first pair of spectacles.  I didn’t like wearing them but had to concede that I could now see what was written on the blackboard.  They also improved my enjoyment of movies at the Sequoia.

   They were horn rimmed glasses and I didn’t like the look of them.  They went back in my shirt pocket when I wasn’t gazing at the blackboard or watching a movie.  I believe this on-again-off-again business contributed to my headaches.  My three best friends, Glen Pritzker, Alex Robertson and Billie Bowen all lived up above Tam High either on or near Morning Sun and one day I went home after school with Alex where we played games and read comic books.  When I left his house to walk home I already had a headache.  It was a hot afternoon and the bright sunshine made it worse.  From Alex’s house I had to first walk down into Homestead Valley and by the time I hit ground level at Reed Boulevard my head was throbbing much worse than usual.  I turned up Ethel to Montford and then began the climb up the big hill on Molino, a task I always found daunting but on this occasion it was doubly awful as my head pulsated with waves of hurt which became worse the closer I got to home.  By the time I finally arrived at 10 Seymour I was walking so slowly as each footstep exacerbated the now very severe pain.  When I entered our house my mother could see that I was not well and before long I was tucked up in the double bed in my parents’ room.  It was still light outside as I lay there in a state of such severe agony that the slightest sound would reverberate through the inside of my skull and I could hear every tiny noise being made in the house.  My sisters chattering with my mother down in the kitchen, cars driving past on Molino which was many yards away from our house.

   When I woke up the next morning I was in my own bed and the pain was gone.  I’m pretty certain that what I experienced was a migraine and, though I was to carry on having headaches up through my early twenties I never had one that bad again.

   The injuries which caused me to have scabs on my knees seemed to be a constant reality throughout my childhood.  One scab in particular was the worst because it existed on my upper lip just under my nose and seemed to take forever to dry up and fall off.  I was cycling to Alto School one morning during the sixth grade and, as brother Jim and I never rode our bikes down the big hill on Molino, I pedalled my bike down Janes Street instead with its twists, turns and hairpin bends.  The street joined Montford at the end and at this time on this stretch there was a long straight wound in the road surface.  I was going at quite a clip and, not noticing this gash in the road, cycled right into it.  My wheels were immediately trapped inside this long slit and as it tapered off to nothing it stopped my front wheel dead and I flew over the handlebars head first onto the pavement.  Ouch!  The shock, pain and embarrassment of this incident was severe and the rest of my ride to school was a bit sombre.  I don’t remember any blood on my upper lip but it was painful and moist.  By the next day however I had a scab which started off the colour of my flesh but after a few days became dark and looked like a Hitler moustache.  It’s my recollection that it stayed on my upper lip for at least a month which was a long time for a twelve year old boy.

   Because I spent so much of my youth playing out on the Pixie Trail I became aware of certain effects the weather would have on my body.  Coming out of the sun on a very hot day into the shade of our house would cause an immediate burst of perspiration on my forehead.  Little individual bubbles of sweat would appear at the same time and I would rush to the bathroom mirror to observe them up close as I made dramatic expressions with my face.  This would put me in mind of films I had seen at the Sequoia like King Solomon’s Mines.  I would stare at myself for the longest time not interfering with the beads of sweat until they gradually grew so large that they burst and ran down my face like tears. 

   One time I was out on the Pixie Trail with my friend Johnny Lem.  There was a high road and a low road and I was down below while John was up above.  We were unable to see one another though we could hear each other’s voice clearly.  He must have thrown a rock which, amazingly, hit me square on the top of my head.  It hurt and I complained loudly and his apology was immediate.  However I didn’t think a great deal of it until I became aware of liquid running down my nose and dripping off its tip.  It was blood.  I was bleeding from the top of my head.  The pain of the rock had gone so I began walking briskly home.  I knew that at this time my mother would be washing dishes at the kitchen sink which overlooked our front porch.  I began to rehearse my performance.  I was fairly confident that I was really okay but this was too good an opportunity to act the part of a seriously wounded man.  I began to limp as I staggered up the hill towards Seymour Avenue.  The blood was now all over my face and continued to drop in dusty splats onto the dirt pathway.  As I approached the wooden turnstile on our road I extended my arm as if I needed to grasp onto it like someone who was dying.  I was playing this one for all it was worth.  I staggered through the stile along our road and turned down our steps towards the front porch where, as I suspected, my mother’s jolly face was visible in the window.  Poor Beth never stood a chance.  The sight of her little boy covered in blood and limping weakly gave her such a shock.  But Beth was a trained nurse and immediately put my head under the tap and within moments the bleeding had stopped, bringing my performance to an end.

   However the agonies of illness were no fun at all.  The only good part was being able to stay home from school and listen to the Art Linkletter Show on the radio.  When I was home sick, Beth would usually make a trip into town and buy me a comic book but regardless of how detailed a description of the comic book I gave her she always got me the wrong one.  So my pedantry gave me as much agony as my ailments in a childhood beset with minor traumas.  That having been said I never ever wanted to be in another family.  The Myers household was definitely where I belonged.

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The Dying Days of 1968

While growing up in Mill Valley, my experience of record shops was limited to Village Music which was small and located in the Sequoia Theatre building on Throckmorton.  In the early 1960s Sara Wilcox who owned and operated it moved up to a more modern unit on East Blithedale.  I had known Sara since I was in the third grade and she would always play whatever my pal Glen Pritzker and I ever wanted to hear.  Party Doll by Buddy Knox?  Sure thing.  Wake Up Little Susie by the Everly Brothers? Of course you can.

   But in 1968 when I was living in San Francisco, I discovered a new, less personal kind of record store.  It stood at the corner of Bay and Columbus and it was called Tower Records.  I had never encountered a store like this before.  It was big and more like a supermarket than a record shop.  It was impersonal, not at all like buying records from Sara.  The record covers were all shrink wrapped in cellophane which was never the case at Village Music.  I would spend a lot of time leafing through the bins.  I had to really want an album before making a purchase.  

   What prompted me to buy Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison I don’t remember but I was fascinated enough to get it and once I had, I listened to it a lot.  Something about him playing to a truly captive audience fascinated me.  Cash seemed to have cultivated a kind of outlaw image which appealed to the convicts.  When he sang: “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” they cheered, whooped and hollered.

   Of course I knew Johnny Cash’s records from the 1950’s like I Walk The Line and Ring of Fire but I can’t say that I had followed his career at all and always thought he sang a bit flat.  And that strange quality in his voice was all there on the Folsom Prison disc but something about this record was utterly compelling and I listened to it again and again.  The first song was Folsom Prison Blues which I had never heard before even though Cash had first recorded it in 1955.

   During my senior year at Tam High, the male students all went on an expedition to the prison at San Quentin which was a very sobering experience.  Those young women who were also seniors were not allowed to go on this trip.  We were instructed not to look at or talk to any of the inmates and the only interaction we had was with a prisoner who was working in the library.  We were heckled by a crowd of convicts as we walked through the dining hall.  It was a bit alarming to troop single file through the gas chamber which was much smaller than I had expected.  On the bus back to Mill Valley there wasn’t a lot of casual banter.  I guess it was the memory of this trip which made Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison such a compelling disc to listen to.  Those guys who made up his audience were all doing serious time and cannot have been easy to perform for.  Johnny Cash, however, had some kind of special appeal to these men behind bars.

   His band was very good and included Carl Perkins on lead guitar and his wife June Carter on vocals.  Live albums were becoming popular but this LP had an extra layer of drama attached.

   Another disc I bought at Tower Records was Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix which featured the haunting Voodoo Chile.  I had seen the Jimi Hendrix Experience perform twice on their first trip to San Francisco in 1967.  Once at the Fillmore Auditorium and again one afternoon in Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle where they performed on the back of a flat bed truck.  

   By late 1968 I had moved from the city and was living in a shared house on Medway Road in San Anselmo with two fellow ship’s clerks, Jim Mulligan and Bill Bechtold.  Working on the San Francisco waterfront was a bit of a commute from northern Marin.  I’d catch a Greyhound bus on Central Avenue and ride it all the way to the Ferry Building in time to get to the hiring hall.  I was saving money for my trip to London so I worked a lot.

   On the front I occasionally saw my old school friend Steve who, looking sober and alert seemed to be keeping on the straight and narrow with his drug problem.  Steve had an amphetamine addiction but had been on the wagon for quite some time now.  Someone I didn’t know but saw a lot of when I worked on the north side was the long haired fork lift driver known as the Greek.  He was befriended by my housemate Jim Mulligan who invited him to come up to Medway Road for New Year’s Eve.

   Several of Mulligan’s buddies from New York began appearing and sleeping on the sofa.  One was a guy a bit older than me and for some reason he and I found ourselves in Mill Valley early one evening and decided to hitchhike back to San Anselmo.  It was getting dark as we stood by the gas station at the junction of East Blithedale and Camino Alto with our thumbs out.  A middle aged woman with a little boy in the back seat stopped for us and we got in.  “Have you eaten?” she asked in an unnaturally urgent tone.  “You must eat.  I insist.”  She then turned left on Lomita and drove to her house in Alto where we got out and went inside.  The kid disappeared pretty quick and she gave us each a bottle of beer.  As she chatted with the other guy, I sipped my beer and began to feel very uncomfortable.  She seemed to be making sexual advances to the pair of us.  I couldn’t stop thinking of the possibility that an irate husband might suddenly appear.  My friend had no such worries and was responding to her friendly flirtatious chatter.  I finished my beer, told them both that I had to get back to San Anselmo and set off leaving my friend there.  I got two lifts north and was home by 9pm.

   My friend returned to the house on Medway the next day with tales of the night he spent with the woman and the fact that she had a movie projector to watch porno films on.  As I recall he made repeat visits to her house in Alto.

   A movie which I had to see was Bullitt starring Steve McQueen.  Shot in San Francisco, this picture had made the news during the filming and I knew a ship’s clerk on the front who had a small part in it as a police officer.  Steve McQueen was very cool.  I first saw him in The Blob at the Saturday matinee but he hadn’t made much of an impression in that.  The first time he impressed me was in Never So Few which my father Blackie took me to see at the Sequoia.  He drove Frank Sinatra’s jeep and a combination of his expert athleticism and his nonchalant manner made him very watchable.  He also resembled my future brother-in-law Lonnie Thornton who was living with my sister Katie in the city.  The big selling point of Bullitt was the car chase with McQueen driving a Ford Mustang.

   My next purchase from Tower Records was Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones.  I found it a bit of a mixed bag.  Having loved a few of the Stones’ LPs like Aftermath and Between The Buttons, some of the songs on this album appealed to me and others not at all.  I was indifferent to Sympathy For The Devil and thought Street Fighting Man to be reminiscent of Jumping Jack Flash which I hadn’t liked at all.  The only track I really enjoyed was Stray Cat Blues which was odd considering how much of a fan I had been.

   The crash pad dimension of our house intensified in the dying days of 1968.  A lot of hippies who neither Mulligan nor Bechtold actually knew began staying over and my indifference to the song Sympathy For The Devil transformed into hatred as this one long haired guy played it over and over, dancing around the living room to it.  One evening the house was so crowded with strangers that I retreated to my bedroom.  I was soon joined by Bechtold, Mulligan and Geri.  We all wondered who these people were and how we could get rid of them.

   One guy who turned up was a long haired bearded fellow who ate macrobiotic food and soon commandeered our kitchen with sacks of different types of grain.  This was when Bill Bechtold made his joke about getting a grain elevator installed.  This guy used to do his karate exercises out on our front lawn and he had a pretty girl friend with long dark hair.  One day on the waterfront I didn’t get a job at the hiring hall so took the Greyhound bus back to San Anselmo where I arrived about 10am.  As I walked in the door I could smell bacon cooking and entering the kitchen I saw the macrobiotic guy’s girl friend frying the bacon.  She spun around in a state of panic and said: “Please don’t tell him!”

   One regular visitor to the house was a very tall thin caucasian guy with medium length dark hair.  He lived in San Rafael, was soft spoken and seemed friendly.  He didn’t have any regular attachment to anyone living there so I came to the conclusion that he was a drug dealer and nothing in the chats I had with him made me think differently.  Presumably he’d come around to our house to provide somebody with some grass or something stronger.  It was after my doctor told me that I could no longer smoke weed that I began hearing about cocaine from my friends.

   For me the magic of the summer of love had become a distant memory perceived through the thick fog of depression and heavy medication.  Practically every day in the Chronicle would be news of yet another runaway kid found dead from an overdose in a doorway in the Haight Ashbury district.  News from the Vietnam war was equally grim and the turmoil of anti-Vietnam war protests on US campuses was like another war altogether.

   At San Francisco State College a strike was organised by the Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front to establish an ethnic studies department at the college.  Ronald Reagan, who was governor of California at this time, expressed his impatience with those running the college and sometime in November Robert Smith resigned as president of SF State and was replaced by S.I. Hayakawa, a professor of semantics.

   I had encountered Mr Hayakawa many times while working at the Bus Depot in my high school years.  A short friendly man of Japanese descent, he and his family lived in Mill Valley up in Blithedale Canyon I believe.  I also had known his son Alan who was among the cast of The Crucible which was directed by Dan Caldwell at Tam High.  For some reason I expected Mr Hayakawa to be politically left of centre but he quickly demonstrated that he was very hardline against the strikers.  The violence on SF State campus escalated alarmingly.  

   I would read reports of the confrontations between student strikers and police at SF State in the Chronicle on the bus into the city then see it on the TV news in the evening.  The SF Police Tactical squad were regularly on the campus and photos of them in their round helmets regularly appeared as they battled and arrested the striking students and faculty members.

   As Christmas approached my parents Blackie and Beth gave up the apartment in North Beach and moved back to their house on Catalpa in Mill Valley.  I spent Christmas there with them but went back to San Anselmo soon after.

   There seemed to be a special significance to the coming of 1969 probably because of the common usage of ’69’ to denote oral sexual intercourse.  However it was another new year’s eve with all the promise of exciting possibilities.  Our house on Medway Road was full of social traffic as the evening began.  There wasn’t a party there but someone in the neighbourhood was having one which all of us were welcome to attend.  Jim Mulligan had invited the Greek, the long haired forklift driver from the waterfront and he brought his guitar with him.  He played it beautifully.  What I knew about the Greek was that he had been in the marine corps and served in Vietnam.  I had seen him driving his forklift truck on the front many times.  His manner on arrival that evening was friendly and gentle.  He was of medium height with a muscular build and had fairly long dark hair which was curly.  He lit a joint and sat in the living room with his guitar which he began playing.  Mulligan and I were enjoying his music.  At about the same time our housemate Geri’s rather boozy boyfriend was trying to make a long distance phone call in the kitchen.  He asked in a slightly aggressive manner for the Greek to keep the noise down.  I think our guest did try to play quietly but he didn’t stop.  Geri’s boyfriend, who was already drunk by 9pm kept shouting from the other room to keep the noise down but the Greek kept on playing.  Finally the drunken boyfriend snapped, ran into the living room and lunged at the Greek.  What then occurred happened very quickly.  Our guest dropped the guitar and threw his right hand out towards the attacking boyfriend who went flying backwards onto the kitchen floor.  That was all I saw and I have no idea what the Greek did.  The drunk boyfriend was now lying on his back, unconscious, on the kitchen floor.

   “Oh man,” said our guest.  “What a drag.  I didn’t want that to happen.”  He quickly picked up his guitar and left our house.  The boyfriend regained consciousness soon after and another visitor came in through the back door, the drug dealer from San Rafael who had someone behind him.  It took me a moment to recognise my school friend Steve from the waterfront as he looked absolutely terrible.  He hadn’t shaved, his hair looked longer and greasy, his eyes were wild and the clothes he wore looked dirty.  The poor soul had clearly fallen off the wagon.

   It was not a joyous new year’s eve for me.  The drama of the Greek knocking out our drunken housemate and the sight of Steve in a clearly drugged up state put a damper on any positive feelings I had as the clock struck midnight and it became 1969.

To be continued: a few delayed departures.

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1968: The View From San Anselmo

I returned from hitch-hiking in Europe in a very manic state and after an unsuccessful attempt to crawl back into the psychedelic poster business, I went to work again on the San Francisco waterfront and lived at my parent’s apartment in North Beach.  Staying with my parents after all the unhappy experiences I’d been through was problematic so when my brother Jim suggested that it would be better if I moved out, I had to admit he was right.

   I’d become friendly with two ship’s clerks on the front, Jim Mulligan and Bill Bechtold and we decided to look for a rental property together.  Bechtold and Mulligan were both intellectual and witty.  That they were part of the hippy generation was secondary to their educational grounding.  I recall no hip jargon from either of them.  In the summer of 1968 my parents took a trip to England to visit my sister Nell and her family and by the time they returned I had moved out.  Bechtold, Mulligan and I rented a house on Medway Road in San Anselmo.

   My friendship with these two guys was actually a factor in the improvement of  my mental health.  They were both college educated and regularly discussed literature which made a change to the usual chatter with my hippy friends.  

   Mulligan was of medium height with longish hair and a moustache.  He was a very friendly person with a New York accent who always seemed to look on the bright side of things.    Bill Bechtold was very tall with cropped blond hair and a small moustache. I never heard him utter a sloppy sentence.  Not quite as optimistic as Mulligan, he spoke beautifully and with great wit.  He had little patience with self-pity and his description of any indulgence of it was: “to bemoan and lament.”  When hippies descended on our house, decorating the kitchen with macrobiotic food he suggested we get a grain elevator.

   One subject that came up regularly between Mulligan and Bechtold was the anti-intellectual attitudes of many of the ship’s clerks on the waterfront.  Book reading was frowned upon during down-time on a pier.  Bill told us that as he turned up for work one day the head clerk said to him: ‘There’s no reading allowed.’  “I think he suspected I could,” said Bill.

   In addition to Mulligan and Bechtold, we were joined in the house by a young woman named Geri and her boyfriend.  The boyfriend was a manual labourer who would go to work on building sites during the day.  Geri worked in an office and her boyfriend was a pretty heavy boozer, which wasn’t at odds with the lifestyle of Bechtold and Mulligan.  In fact there was a lot of drinking at the house on Medway Road and practically everybody smoked cigarettes.  One of Mulligan’s favourite observations was to describe his craving for a cigarette as ‘oral gratification.’  Weed was also smoked in the house though not by me as I stuck to my doctor’s advice and abstained.  Friends of Mulligan from back east began appearing and crashing on the sofa and as time passed our house gradually became a crash pad.  

   Bechtold was curious about my breakdown because he could see no obvious signs of it in my demeanour.  I guess this indicated that my mental state was improving but I was still socially inept and a bit of a charlatan in group activities.  I felt I was pretending to engage with other people rather than actually doing so.  Again the Jimi Hendrix song I Don’t Live Today described the way I felt.

   There was a house in Strawberry where I had spent a lot of time hanging out in 1967.  It was owned by a very nice middle aged woman who was divorced, had two children and smoked a lot of weed.  There were always young people hanging around her place and I had first met her during that summer before I flipped out.  She was a folk singer under contract to Frank Werber who managed the Kingston Trio.  For some reason Bechtold joined me on a visit one time and she talked about the Beatles in the reverential way that many of us did.  I wasn’t alone in deifying the four Liverpudlians and I think it was this attitude which got on Bechtold’s nerves for he told me later that he found my friend to be naive and shallow.  The Beatles were never discussed by either Mulligan or Bechtold.  And yet the fab four held a magical place in my soul ever since I first encountered them in 1964.

   I was a junior at Tam High when I first heard I Want To Hold Your Hand on the radio then went with a few friends to watch their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and that did it.  I came away knowing all four of them by name and for the next year and a half of high school and beyond their music continued to get better and better.  It was in December, 1965 that they released their first concept album Rubber Soul and it was a sign that these four had not run out of steam but were still creating inventive music that everybody seemed to love.  So I definitely idolised John, Paul, George and Ringo and knew all their songs by heart.  I guess that many of my peers did as well.  Of course idolising anyone is a bit ridiculous and I’m sure this was the point Bechtold was making.

   I had brought my record player and several LPs with me to the house on Medway Road.  My relationship with recorded popular music was to continue for many years to come.  Pop music had been a good friend to me through good times and bad but the heady sounds of 1967 which included the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, had given way to new sounds.  Several of the bands I had known from working at the Fillmore were now becoming big like Jefferson Airplane, The Doors and the Grateful Dead.   While in London earlier in the year I stayed a good deal of the time at my friend Jo Bergman’s flat in Chelsea.  Jo worked for Mick Jagger and the flat she was staying in actually belonged to Marianne Faithful.  Most of the records we listened to there were acetates, pre-release copies.  I remember hearing an acetate of Lady Madonna by the Beatles and Bob Dylan’s bootleg tapes with The Band.  When Jo brought home an acetate of the Stones’ new disc Jumpin’ Jack Flash, one of her American friends said that if they released this now in the states it would go into the top 10.  Well it came out just about the time I moved into the house on Medway Road and did indeed climb to number 3 in the American charts.  I had, by this time, lost much of my interest in the Stones and this record did nothing to restore my enthusiasm.  It had a catchy riff but absolutely no soul and I found the lyrics irritating.

   We had a black and white television set which sat in the living room and was watched by all in the evenings.  Having been deprived of a TV throughout the 1950s, the Myers family finally got one when we moved to our house on Catalpa in 1962.  But I never really got into the habit of watching it.  I found the commercials annoying.  I’d be viewing an old Humphrey Bogart movie only to find it interrupted every few minutes by some blowhard in a suit sitting on a stepladder telling you about his used car dealership on the Bayshore Freeway.  It was a system of rewards and punishments with the commercials being the latter.

   One programme we watched at Medway Road was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.  By 1968 the hippy jargon of the previous year had made its way into the mainstream media and this programme’s title was a play on Be-In, Love-In, Sit-In, etc.  Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were a pair of funny slick nightclub comedians and their writers worked in many acknowledgements of the hippy phenomenon without alienating its audience.  The show consisted of very old fashioned physical gags and up to the minute observations about the drug culture which had spread across the nation like wildfire.  Laugh-In made jokes about the presidential election and the war in Vietnam and some of it was pretty left-leaning.  The look of the show was a blend of the Beach Party movies and psychedelic poster art and two performers who made me laugh a lot were Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn.  The only presidential candidate to appear on Laugh-In was Richard Nixon who was filmed saying: “Sock it to me?”

   Laugh-In ran on the NBC network while over on CBS there was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Tommy and Dickie Smothers were known to us in the Myers family because we had a few of their LPs from the early 1960s.  Their act was very funny and highly original.  The two siblings were folk musicians whose performance was constantly interrupted by amusing arguments.  The truly funny element was Tommy Smothers reverting to his childhood self with all the stammering inarticulate verbiage that kids actually come out with.  His classic line was “Mom always liked you best!”

   The Smothers discs we had listened to were all recorded in San Francisco nightclubs but now they were big stars on prime time television and their show was every bit as funny as Laugh-In but with a bit more in the way of left wing politics.  Counter culture attitudes and anti-war sentiments were prominent in every programme and the brothers were in a constant battle with CBS executives over the content of their shows.  When Joan Baez appeared as a guest, she dedicated the song she sang to her then husband David Harris, who was going to prison for refusing to be drafted.  The network allowed her dedication to him and the fact he was going to prison but cut out the reason why.

   Bill Bechtold had his draft status adjusted to 1A while we were living in San Anselmo and he too was considering going to prison.  He regularly said that jail held no great horrors for him as it would provide him with lots of reading time.  I had only spent one night in San Rafael jail in 1966 and hated it so completely that I had no such inclinations.  But then by that time I had been disqualified for military service and was 4F.

   It was on the Smothers Brothers show that I first saw Glen Campbell singing Gentle On My Mind, a song written by banjo playing John Hartford.  It was my first indicator that country music was the direction the American record business was headed.

  A performing artist I’d never heard of came to my attention through the rantings of Jim Mulligan.  His hatred for the singer/songwriter/poet Rod McKuen was so intense that he could prattle on about him for hours.  I soon learned that McKuen had written the song When I Was Seventeen for Frank Sinatra as well as many others.  Mulligan would become very animated, expressing his abhorrence of McKuen’s passion for self pity and melancholy.  Though totally unknown to me, McKuen was, by 1968, a true showbiz phenomenon, selling millions of records and filling out concert venues with hordes of devoted fans.  Who knew?  Not me obviously.  His singing voice was gravelly and he said that he sounded like he gargled with Dutch Cleanser.     

   McKuen was later interviewed by Nora Ephron for Esquire magazine in a piece which featured both him and Erich Segal, the author of Love Story.  Ms Ephron did a job on both these two and titled it Mush.  She described them as having the habit of repeating compliments others have paid them, and doing it in a manner that is so blatant it almost seemed ingenuous.  McKuen’s poetry she found to be “superficial, platitudinous and frequently silly.”  She objected to his use of adjectives as nouns: Listen To The Warm, Caught In The Quiet, etc, and her words clearly stung the loner poet as when interviewed by film critic Roger Ebert, he described Ephron as someone who tells lies.  “Don’t get me wrong,” he quickly backtracked.  “I don’t hate her.  I mean, I don’t hate anybody.  In a way, I wish I could hate a little more.  It would make me more of a rounded personality.”  Roger Ebert then found himself agreeing with Nora Ephron’s description of McKuen’s speech patterns, starting with the specific, edging out to the general, back-tracking to tone down any language which might offend and concluding with an apology which seemed self-critical but was really self-praise.  

   Where Mulligan had done all his listening to Rod McKuen I have no idea.  We listened to the Beatles in the house and many other LPs like Blood, Sweat and Tears but nothing by McKuen.  The Beatles released the single Hey Jude which went straight to number one.  Next came The White Album which was a mixed bag, a double LP and unlike Sgt Pepper where all the songs were instantly wonderful, some of it took a bit of getting used to.  I enjoyed Back in the U.S.S.R. with its witty pastiche of the Beach Boys and several of the songs like Blackbird but overall it didn’t coalesce as their previous albums had.  Some of the numbers had an ugly quality.

   One night on the television I saw an NBC special featuring Elvis Presley.  Before I was a Beatles fan, I had been a nine year old Presley fan while at Homestead School in the 1950s.  But Presley had moved away from the kind of rock and roll records I had collected as a kid and by 1968 he had a back catalogue of movies behind him with titles like Girls! Girls! Girls! and Harum Scarum.  When The Beatles met him the first time they asked why he had stopped making the kind of records which had inspired them and he said he was too busy with his movie schedule.

   So I watched with rapt interest what came to be known as the Elvis Comeback Special which featured him performing to a small studio audience.  Dressed in black leather he sang many of his old numbers.  This programme was not at all schmaltzy.  It had a raw quality which stood in stark contrast to all of those bland, formulaic movies with forgettable titles.  It was a ratings success.

   I also saw people I knew from the Fillmore on the TV like The Doors and Jefferson Airplane.  Despite my voting for Hube the Cube, Richard Nixon was elected president.  The year 1968 was drawing to a close and I had been saving my money for the trip to England the following year but my departure would be delayed by a few unexpected surprises.

to be continued – 1969: the final year of the sixties

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1968: The Presidential Election Campaign

1968: The Presidential Election Campaign

When in the early spring of 1968 I found myself in Paris and ready to take off hitch hiking in a southerly direction, the name of Orléans appealed to me as my first destination.  I was lucky to get a lift all the way there with a truck driver.  He spoke not a word of English and I spoke no French but we managed to get on well and he stopped for lunch at a café where we both ate steak with pommes frites and drank red wine.  He was very good company and having lunch with him provided a window for me onto the French way of life.  

   I met some very interesting folks as I rode south.  One man spoke perfect English and was absolutely scathing about English and American tourists not speaking anything but their native tongue.  “It is lazy,” he railed.  “And it is insulting to the natives of the country they are visiting.”  I guess he was condemning me along with all the rest but he was a very nice guy and drove me all the way to Lyon.

   When I got to Grenoble I met and fell in with a group of English university students, two young women and a young man who took me to this great café which was very cheap and served delicious food.  They were all good conversationalists and my short time with them seemed to bring me out of myself a bit.  My next ride down to Nice was with a beautiful blond caucasian woman who I guessed was in her early thirties.  I thought she was a business person of some description as she was very smartly dressed but the language barrier prevented any conversation so I simply gazed out the window as we zoomed along mountain roads carved out of alarmingly vertiginous cliffs.

   My plan was to hitch across the south coast of France and then on into Spain.  It soon became clear that I’d been lucky with lifts down from Paris as people were not stopping for me along the southern coast.  My meals were mostly a stick of French bread and cheese unlike in Paris where Marc and I ate in great inexpensive restaurants and drank good wine.  But as I trudged through Toulon and Marseille with my bread and cheese, I walked as much as I rode.  I managed to get a lift as far as Barcelona and from there took a train south as I wanted to visit Morocco.  Stupidly I didn’t buy any food for the train to Algeciras, thinking I could get something to eat on board but this was not the case.  I shared a compartment with a large Spanish family who brought out their lunch to eat and immediately offered me some.  I was too embarrassed to accept but when it became clear that I actually had no food, they insisted and I was very grateful as, by this time, I was extremely hungry.

   From Algeciras I took the ferry across the Strait of Gibralter to Tangier but because I had long hair and looked like a hippy they refused me entry and sent me back.  I hitched a ride with an American service family who got me to the rock of Gibralter and by the time I got back to Paris the student rebellion had all but paralysed the country.  I flew back to London on what I later learned was the last flight out before a general strike shut everything down.  

   I returned to San Francisco with big ideas of getting myself back into the psychedelic poster business.  I went to see Bill Graham at the Fillmore who paid me a few hundred dollars on the sales of the four Fillmore posters I had done.  This was before he took over the copyrights and deprived Wes Wilson, Bonnie MacLean and myself of any future royalties.

   The reality was that my mental state was unhealthy and the idea of getting myself back into the poster business proved to be a goal which I was in no condition to reach.  It was at this point that I went to see Doctor Weinberg who prescribed me some sedatives and suggested I get a job.  So I went back to work on the waterfront.  My father Blackie wanted me to stay on the front, get on the B-List, which was a step up from going into the hall each morning, and take art classes at night school.  It was actually a very good plan but I was determined to go back to London and that was that.  I worked as much as I could and saved my money.  

   Though I had followed my father’s wishes and kept my hair short while working on the front there was one clerk who was on the B-list who had shoulder length hair and he simply ignored the cat calls which inevitably occurred when he walked down a pier.  “Are you a boy or a girl?” was a regular refrain.  One guy I noticed on the waterfront was a forklift truck driver who had hippyish long hair but because he was tough nobody gave him a hard time.  His nickname was ‘the Greek’ and I was to make his acquaintance in dramatic circumstances later in the year.  A young man from our neighbourhood in Mill Valley was also working on the front.  His name was Steve and he too had a bad time with drugs but unlike my experience with LSD, which gave me psychological problems, he had become physically addicted to speed.  Steve had cleaned up but looked like he’d seen a ghost when he talked about his time strung out on amphetamines.  

   The presidential campaign began soon after the Republicans chose Richard Nixon as their candidate.  I remember Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California, making an unsuccessful bid for the candidacy along with Nelson Rockefeller but it was tricky Dick who won in the end.  After the harrowing Democratic convention in Chicago which was beset by violent anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and equally violent police tactics, Hubert Humphrey emerged as the Democratic candidate and both he and Nixon found they were in a three horse race with George Wallace who ran as an independent.

   Wallace was the governor of Alabama and a Democrat who made his name on the international stage as a rabid opponent of racial integration.  According to my father he originally was pretty liberal but lost an election to a white supremacist and vowed never to lose another, hence embracing the cause of racial segregation.

   Every night on the television news during that campaign, a clip of Wallace played from whichever packed auditorium he was in that day.  As there was always a section of the crowd with heckling opponents, he would shout loudly to the baying mass: “You communists and anarchists better have your say because after November 4th you are through in this country!”  At this the crowd of supporters roared its approval.

   Wallace’s campaign garnered a lot of support in the bay area.  His basic appeal was for white segregationists and though we up north didn’t have the kind of segregation they had down south there was a racial divide which operated economically.  Mill Valley was a case in point.  By the time I graduated from Tam High there were only two families of colour who lived there.  Whenever a black person would try to buy a house in Mill Valley, the realtor would jack the price up so high it became unaffordable.  Rumour had it that the first black teacher at Tam High, Mr Marshall, tried to buy a house in our town and was kept out by the prohibitive price hike.

   So there were no men in white Klan uniforms burning crosses on people’s lawns but the end result was the same.  The majority of black people in Marin County all lived in Marin City, not Mill Valley, Sausalito or Tiburon and throughout my time at Tam High there were regular disturbances involving white and black students.  As the grade schools I had gone to were full of white children, the only black people I ever met as a kid were friends of my parents.

   I was always curious about the far right and went with an Australian friend to hear George Wallace speak at the Cow Palace.  It was a spooky experience.  The place was packed solid with white people from all walks of life.  The hecklers occupied a relatively small section but they were very loud and gave Wallace his cue to repeat the mantra I’d heard every night on the news:  “You anarchists and communists…etc.”

   By this time I was reading Rolling Stone magazine and I saw a piece about a recording session that Elvis Presley was doing in Memphis and it stated that the studio was decorated with Wallace for President posters.  Elvis was always very careful not to voice his political opinions and it is true that he had many close friendships with black artists.  Memphis photographer Ernest C Withers, who was black, photographed Presley a few times and said of him: “I was there one time when a reporter asked him why he’d called a black man ‘mister.’  Not too many white people did that back then.  And Elvis said, ‘I called him mister because he’s a man.’”

  I’ve seen photos of Elvis shaking hands with George Wallace but, years later, when the politician was in a wheelchair after an assassination attempt.

   Another celebrity who was questioned by the media about possible sympathy for the governor of Alabama was actor John Wayne who stated: “The only Wallace I know is Hal Wallis.”  It was claimed that Wayne had contributed $30,000 to Wallace’s campaign but the Duke denied that, saying that he was a Nixon supporter.

   Nixon seemed a reborn candidate in 1968.  After his humiliating defeats, first as president against John Kennedy in 1960 and then as governor of California in 1962 when he lost to the incumbent Pat Brown.  He famously told reporters: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

   But this time he’d been groomed by Madison Avenue executives who sold him like soap powder.  Chief among his advisors were Bob Haldeman, an ad executive at J. Walter Thompson and John Ehrlichman, a corporate lawyer.  Both these men later went to federal prison for their roles in the Watergate conspiracy.  Nixon made speeches about the war in Vietnam which sounded meaningful but said nothing.  He concentrated instead on law and order.  He held televised Q&A sessions in which paid actors asked him scripted questions.  The ghost of the 1960 presidential debate where Kennedy looked cool and Nixon appeared sweaty and unshaven had clearly motivated his campaign managers to control every aspect of his presidential bid.  His handlers made certain that no journalist capable of making him look foolish got anywhere near him and his campaign was aided by President Johnson’s decision not to run again.  

   Johnson’s bombing campaign of North Vietnam had, by this time, polarised opinion in the US and Hubert Humphrey supported Johnson’s Vietnam policy.  And though Richard Nixon’s carefully worded speeches on the subject sounded critical of that policy and convinced floating voters that he would end the war, his words were ambiguous.  I remember his TV ads in which he said over a soundtrack of dramatic music: “Never has so much military, economic and diplomatic power been used so ineffectively as in Vietnam.  I pledge to you we shall have an honourable end to the war in Vietnam.”  

   It is true that the Vietnam war had divided the nation.  When I was still at Tam High School I recall those students who were gung-ho and couldn’t wait to sign up.  Although I was against the war I didn’t really get involved in the anti-Vietnam protests.  So here we were in the midst of a presidential campaign with Hube the Cube advocating Johnson’s policy, Nixon criticising it with great ambiguity and Wallace barely mentioning the war at all.

   Both my parents had utter contempt for Nixon who had made his name as a junior congressman on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and played a key role in the prosecution of Alger Hiss.  Anti-Communism in the 1950s was an easy bandwagon for opportunist politicians like him to jump on and boy, did he jump on it.  There was a poster from the 1950s which had a picture of Nixon and the slogan: “Would you buy a used car from this man?”  A similar poster appeared after Ronald Reagan’s victory as governor of California showing Reagan as a bad-guy cowboy from one of his westerns saying: “Thanks for the votes, suckers!”

   While all this politics was unfolding I was finding that living at home with Blackie and Beth was becoming problematic.  In 1966 my brother Jim had joined the Army.  He’d done his basic training near Seattle and was now stationed at Fort Ord.  While Blackie and Beth were in London seeing my sister Nell and her family, brother Jim paid a visit and suggested it would be a good thing for all concerned if I moved out.  

   I had become friends with two clerks on the front who were close to my age.  They were Jim Mulligan and Bill Bechtold and we agreed to look for a place together.  We wound up renting a house in San Anselmo on Medway Road.  It was an ordinary suburban house with a lawn in front and a swimming pool in the back.  That sounds glamorous but it definitely was not.  The pool was very small and a bit derelict.  The surround was wooden and worn and one of the first alarming sights I had by the pool was the presence of a large can of ‘Black Widow Poison’ with a vivid illustration of the spider in question.  Nobody ever swam in that pool.

To be continued: next time, the view from San Anselmo.

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1968 – Working on the Waterfront

1968 – Working on the Waterfront

1968 was a year of many parts for me.  I had turned 21 while staying with friends in London on a trip which included hitch hiking around Europe and even finding myself in Paris during the student riots of that year.  I was in the early stages of recovery from a nervous breakdown.  A bad psychedelic experience in the summer of the previous year resulted in me being picked up by the Highway Patrol on the Tiburon bypass and incarcerated in Napa State Hospital for three weeks.  This was followed by months of group therapy, heavy medication and an ultimate descent into deep depression.  So, for me, not much about the following year, 1968, was very joyful.  Certain things, however, were interesting.

   For example I voted in my first presidential election.  I could never have voted for either Richard Nixon or George Wallace so it was Hubert Humphrey, or ‘Hube the Cube’ as my sister Katie used to call him, who got my vote.

   I was by this time working on the San Francisco waterfront as a ship’s clerk, a job I got through my father Blackie.  I was saving my money to return to London which had a magnetic pull for me.  Secretly I wanted to be a singer but I was so buried inside myself that I could only daydream about being on a stage in front of an audience.  However, on my trip to London I had met a young American guitarist and vocalist with whom I struck up a song writing partnership.  He was Marc Sullivan, the son of Elliott and Norma Sullivan.  Elliott was a blacklisted American actor who was an old friend of my father’s.  I had known that Marc had an experience  similar to mine with LSD and this provided a bit of common ground.  So the possibility of writing songs with Marc made a trip back to London something I had to do.

   It was the dream of living in London which kept me going all those months I worked on the waterfront.  Having a good paying job was therapeutic for me as I gradually came back from being very crazy indeed.  The heavy medication which had slowly brought me down from my wild eyed state, kept me going down into the deepest and darkest psychological place I had ever been.  The loud mouthed wise guy I had been as a teenager was locked away somewhere else and I found myself barely able to talk to people.  Jimi Hendrix’s song I Don’t Live Today described perfectly the state I was in.  

   When I had returned from my European trip and was very jittery, I went to see Dr Weinberg who had run the day clinic I’d attended.  “I can put you on the couch and charge you twenty five bucks an hour John,” he told me.  “But I don’t think that’s what you need.  What you need is a job.”  He did, however, prescribe me some tranquillisers which calmed my frazzled nerves.  I was living at my parents’ apartment on Russian Hill and that’s when I started working on the front again.

   Most weekdays I’d get up early and make my way to the hiring hall near the Ferry Building.  The place was packed with men smoking cigarettes.  Though I smoked during this time I could never face a cigarette until after lunch so I found this fog of tobacco smoke disgusting.  If the dispatcher called out my name, I’d go up and be told to report to a pier on the north or south side.  The Ferry Building was the central point of the waterfront and all the piers to the north of it were odd numbers and those to the south even.  I had cut my long hair short to please Blackie as there was a considerable prejudice against men with long hair on the front at this time.

   The job involved doing the paper work of whatever transaction you were assigned to.  One day a teamster arrived at pier 27 to collect forty sacks of coffee beans, so the head clerk handed me the relevant paper work, told me and the teamster where on the pier they were located and off we went.  When I got there I found a team of longshoremen waiting by the sacks which were stacked on pallets.  The teamster drove his truck down the pier to where the pallets were and the longshoremen hauled the sacks up onto his truck.  Every stevedore carried a hook which was an essential tool for jobs like this.  With the hook in one hand he would drive it into one side of the sack then grab the other side with his hand and swing the heavy load up onto the truck.  Every movement of goods had to be checked off by a ship’s clerk.  Sometimes I went down into the hold of a ship with a team of stevedores to load or unload cargo.  If they were unloading, they would stack whatever it was onto a pallet which was then lifted out of the hold by the ship’s winch and over onto the dock.  A waiting forklift truck would then drive it to a pre-determined location on the pier.

   The world of the San Francisco waterfront in 1968 was a totally male environment.  I don’t remember any women ever working on the Embarcadero except in bars and coffee shops.  Today this is different as my nephew Matt Thornton and his wife Eileen are both ship’s clerks and belong to the ILWU.  However all their work is over in the east bay as the piers on the Embarcadero are no longer in use. 

   One reality of an all-male environment was a lot of swearing and quite a few dirty jokes.  The language of the longshoremen was always entertaining.  I was down in the hold of a ship with a team unloading large boxes and when the pallet was full, one of the guys would holler up to the winch driver to lift it out.  The guy operating the winch on this day was not experienced and he didn’t lift the pallet evenly.  It swayed from side to side causing a few of the boxes to fall off.  He had to lower it back down again so the team could re-stack the pallet.  It was still swaying a bit but he managed to lift it out of the hold and get it down to the dock where a forklift truck removed it.  The dockside team then slotted the winch’s two bars onto an empty pallet which the winch driver lifted up above the ship’s deck and over the hold but again it was swinging and banged against the side as he lowered it.  The most senior of the three longshoremen shouted angrily up to the driver that he had to be more careful with the pallets or one of them could get hurt.  I’m sure this guy tried to be more careful but as I recall the loads kept swinging from side to side.  Eventually the head longshoreman was more amused than angry and shouted up to the winch driver: “Man, I’d hate to see you in bed with your old lady.”  At this the other men fell about laughing.

   I remember working with two longshoremen who were joshing each other as they hauled big sacks of cocoa beans.  The first guy complained about something the other had done.  “I can’t help it,”  he replied.  “I was born that way.”  “You weren’t born,”  said the first man.  “Somebody turned over a rock and there you were.” 

   The waterfront was an exciting place to be.  I remember walking down a long pier stacked high with goods on pallets when an earthquake struck.  Suddenly these enormous stacks were swaying back and forth like long grass in a breeze.  It only lasted a brief moment but a very long moment it was.  That none of the loads came tumbling down was a miracle.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was participating in a way of life that would soon no longer exist.  Containerisation is now the way that freight is moved across the world.  

   Because of my parents’ left wing politics, I expected the people who worked on the front to be of the same persuasion but that was not the case.  Most of the men working on the front were very conservative politically.  They supported their union, the ILWU and its president Harry Bridges, but that was because Harry and his officials were tough negotiators who got the longshore workers good wages and conditions.  The war in Vietnam was raging at this time and most of the guys on the waterfront were all for it.  They were also ferociously opposed to the student radicals in the Free Speech movement over at UC Berkeley.  When Mario Savio, who had led the student rebellion at Berkeley. tried to work on the front as a ship’s clerk, he was hounded out.

   I first worked on the waterfront in 1966 and one day I was assigned to pier 50 on the south side.  There were only three of us on the pier that day: the head clerk, a man in his late fifties, another guy who was about thirty and myself who was nineteen.  On the previous day, rioting had broken out in Hunters Point after a white police officer had shot dead a twelve year old boy who was black.  I said something complaining about police brutality and racism.  Both these men were instantly infuriated by my voicing such opinions and started shouting angrily at me.  “When I was a kid,” bellowed the older man, “Our police officer would come down the street and if we couldn’t give him a good explanation of what we were doing he’d knock us to the ground.”  The younger man ranted about law and order and it immediately became clear that I was not dealing with people steeped in the finer points of political debate.  And as we were were the only three clerks working that day I was totally out-gunned.  So I simply shut up and stopped talking.  Interestingly these two guys became very friendly towards me as the day progressed.  It was as though they had forgotten completely about our disagreement.

   But by 1968 I was a different person altogether.  My flipping out in the summer of ’67 and subsequent depression, meant that I had neither the will nor the confidence to speak my mind.  It also meant that I was no longer able to participate in the dope smoking activities of my generation.  Dr Weinberg had told me when I first met him that I would no longer be able to smoke marijuana.  Naturally I didn’t believe him but it soon became clear that he was right as every time I got high I became paranoid.

   One positive aspect of my condition was that it made me 4-F with the draft board.  In June I went over to Oakland for my Army physical.  There was only one person I knew from Tam High there and the poor fellow did not look at all happy about going into the Army.  After the physical was over I went to a desk where a uniformed officer sat.  I presented my papers.  With his right hand he raised a rubber stamp up over his shoulder as he rapidily said: “Is there any reason why you cannot be inducted into the United States Army?”  In this brief moment of time before his hand came down I scrambled quickly to produce the letter from Dr Weinberg.  Like a cartoon character this guy morphed from a fairly neutral facial expression to one of granite faced displeasure as he read Dr Weinberg’s words.  It was like watching his face melt into a frown.  I was held over for 24 hours to have further examination the next day.  I have no memory of that experience.  The only thing I do remember was the Chronicle’s headline the next morning that Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles.

   While hitch hiking in Europe earlier that year it was on the rock of Gibralter that I learned of Martin Luther King’s assassination.  One aspect of my mental condition was a kind of emotional detachment which meant that I didn’t react to either of these utterly shocking events as I would have done before my breakdown.  I remember in 1966 my friend Gregg Parker talking about Bobby Kennedy as someone who was gravitating towards an anti Vietnam war position and that he felt he was smart enough to see that it would be a good platform on which to run for the presidency in 1968.  Martin Luther King had made his opposition to the Vietnam war a regular feature of his civil rights struggle.  So the violent deaths of both these men came at a time when I was emotionally numb.  

   My visit to the rock of Gibralter was in marked contrast to all the other places I’d been to in Spain.  For starters I saw British bobbies patrolling and was also surprised to see wild monkeys roaming around the place.  I purchased a Daily Mirror along with the first white chocolate bar I’d ever encountered.  The paper’s headline informed me that Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis.  

   My hitch hiking trip had begun in Paris where I was staying with my friend Marc Sullivan who was living with his girl friend in an apartment on the Rue de la Harpe.  Marc was working with a folk band called Les Troubadours.  The flat was a transit hub for travelling folk musicians so a lot of hanging out happened there.  In California most hippies smoked marijuana but over on this side of the world it was hashish and the way that joints were rolled was completely different.  The imbiber would pull a few Rizla papers out of its packet and, licking them together, would make a much larger rolling surface.  Then the tobacco from an ordinary  cigarette would be crumbled onto the paper.  Next they’d take the nugget of hash and pass it over a flame, then rub the bits onto the tobacco.  With a tiny cardboard filter, they’d roll up this enormous joint.  The downside of this process was having to inhale the tobacco smoke along with the hash.  As I was now adhering to Dr Weinberg’s advice, I never indulged.  

   Marc had a motorbike and one day I rode on the back with him.  This was during the student uprising and we soon found ourselves in a back street full of police vehicles.  We both had long hair and looked like hippies so the police stopped us.  At this time I didn’t speak a word of French so Marc did all the talking.  He must have convinced them that we were not student radicals and they let us go on our way.  

   After about a week I’d had enough of hanging out and set off to hitch hike south.  Hitch hiking back in the bay area had been a reliable means of transport for me throughout the 1960s and, in addition to getting where I wanted to go, it also offered the opportunity to meet people from very different walks of life.  One time I got a lift from the city into Mill Valley with a nice guy who was a few years older than me and he was talking about hitch hiking around Europe.  As we came down Waldo Grade he described it as the first time he had ever been all alone and that fact had brought him to tears.  He was describing his loneliness as an important turning point in his life and it made an impression on me.  So here I was in Paris with a map of youth hostels to stay in and I picked as my first destination Orléans because I loved the name.  

To be continued: next time – the presidential election of 1968.

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Playland at the Beach

Playland at the Beach

A visit to Playland at the Beach was always the most exciting thing a kid could do.  There was a rough and slightly seedy quality to that place but it gave children a licence to run wild in a special kind of way.  Located across the road from the beach where San Francisco met the Pacific, Playland had a history that stretched back beyond the turn of the twentieth century.  By the time I encountered it, however, it had lost much of its lustre.  Up close the rides, the signs and the furniture all had a grubby look.  The paint work was chipped, faded and old and the men operating the rides certainly seemed professionally unfriendly.  A day at Playland was, however, an overwhelmingly enjoyable experience for young children. 

   The first visit my brother Jim and I made was in 1954.  We went with the Hallinan boys and their mother Vivian.  This would have been at the time their father Vin was in federal prison.  Danny Hallinan is of the opinion that our mother Beth was also there along with my sisters Nell and Kate.

   The first stop at Playland was to purchase a line of tickets.  Each ride cost 25 cents.  Now the Hallinans were extremely wealthy unlike the Myers family so Vivian generously purchased several strips of these red tickets and gave them out to all of us.  Then it would be off through the open plan lot on which all of these rides existed.

   One sound which seemed audible all over Playland was the laughter of this giant female puppet with a shock of red hair under a straw hat.  Laughin’ Sal was her name and she had a big gap between her front teeth and stood inside a large glass case near to the ticket booth with her arms out stretched.  Her laughter was non-stop as the top half of her body rocked back and forth.  The unnatural sound of her cackle seemed to set the tone of the place: bizarre.  At age 7, if I had ever found myself alone at Playland it would have scared the hell out of me.

   Our first stop was the Fun House which was weird and exciting.  Disorientation was the theme of this joint and it didn’t take long to get into the swing of things.  First you passed through a hall of mirrors which warped your image dramatically.  Faces swelled to grotesque proportions and foreheads shrunk and expanded dramatically.  Next you passed through an enormous rotating tube to get to the other side but nobody got through it without falling over a few times.  The next challenge was to walk across this wooden bridge with sections which folded up and down making it impossible to remain standing.  Finally you passed through large rotating drums which spit you out into an enormous wooden space where peculiar giant heads grinned down at you from high up on the ceiling.  For women wearing skirts ferocious jets of air would shoot up from below.  Danny remembers these upsetting Vivian and Beth though they must also have bothered Nell and Kate.

   A huge wooden turntable stood motionless within a gated area.  A man opened the gate surrounding it and Jimmy, Danny and I, along with a huge crowd of other kids, scrambled for a place on its surface.  The walls of the fenced in area were well padded with foam cushions.  Once the gate was shut the turntable began to spin like a record player.  It started slowly and got faster and faster.  Since there was nothing for anyone to hang onto, every single child was eventually propelled off and into the cushioned wall. 

   The spinning turntable was terrific fun but the real star attraction of the Fun House was the slide which snaked up farther than the eye could see.  The slide was fantastic.  You had to pick up a burlap sack from a bin at the bottom and remove your shoes then begin the long climb up to the top which actually took you up higher than the giant grinning heads which adorned the ceiling as the top of the slide was really the uppermost place in the Fun House.  There were three or four lanes on the slide.  Once you’d made the long climb to the top and it was your turn you’d lay your burlap sack down on the flat section in your lane.  Then you pushed away and picked up speed immediately, dipping over the bumps as you hurtled down at higher and higher speeds.  My goodness it was fun and as soon as you got to the bottom you were laughing hysterically and without a moment of hesitation began marching back up the stairs to do it all over again.  As there was no limit to the number of times you could do it you’d just keep going back for more. 

   Beth and Vivian must have found some observation post where they could talk.  I’m pretty sure that Danny, Jimmy and I were together but the older Hallinan boys were nowhere to be seen.  The Hallinan boys all played rough unlike gentle Jim and I.  A pillow fight with them was a terrifying experience.  I remember one such incident at our house when Danny held a pillow over my face so long that I flew into a physical panic, convinced I was going to die.  A visit to their place was always exciting but the adventure was inevitably tinged with danger. 

   Eventually we left the Fun House and back out on the fairground there were plenty of conventional rides like a merry-go-round, dodge-em cars and a big ferris wheel.  Apparently there had once been a big roller coaster but it wasn’t there anymore in 1954.  One of my favourite rides was the ghost train.  A huge sculpture of a giant white skull with its two bony hands coming together sat behind a railroad track with a row of cars between two sets of double doors, one for the entrance and the other for the exit.  You’d give the unfriendly man one of your tickets, sit down in the car and he would push a bar over your lap. Then the car would begin moving, jerkily, towards the double doors, adorned with a spooky colour painting of a ghost across both sides.  Bang!  The car would violently push the two doors open, then jerk around to the right into what was now total darkness.  A sharp corner would be turned to the left then the right and the first of many scary images with equally scary noises would illuminate in the pitch blackness to confront your disoriented senses.  It was genuinely frightening and I loved this ride.

   Another exciting experience was the diving bell which certainly looked as though it was the genuine thing.  It hung from what seemed to be a huge water tower surrounded by artificial rocks.  The diving bell itself had portholes all around it and as you’d give your ticket and go on board you would scramble to the nearest available circular window.  You’d then wait for the door to be sealed and the slow descent into the water.  There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to see down under the water.  The walls were painted with underwater art and I think there were a few fish which must have been traumatised by this thing plunging in and out of the tank.  The highlight of the experience after about five minutes of gazing out the porthole was the sudden propulsion up at the end then bouncing up and down until stationary at which point the dizzy occupants could make their exit.

   I went to Playland many times over the years and always had a terrific experience.  My father Blackie used to take each of us four Myers kids on a special outing to the city on our birthdays and a trip to Playland was always on the agenda.  There were three locations in that vicinity which held a great allure for me: Playland, The Cliff House and Sutro’s.  If you crossed the Great Highway from Playland facing the beach then looked to your right you’d see the Cliff House perched on the huge rocks over the sea with a splendid majesty.  Not visible from this position but just around the corner was Sutro’s Baths, a glorious old place with ancient gaming machines and a big ice skating rink down at the bottom.  The Great Highway became Port Lobos Avenue as it climbed to the Cliff House and around to Sutro’s.  

   Sutro’s was built on the cliffs which faced the Marin side of the Golden Gate.  The entrance was a series of steps descending down to different levels before you finally reached the ice skating rink at the bottom.  Along the way down were several long corridors lined with old fashioned penny arcade gaming machines, photo booths and sights like Tom Thumb’s Wardrobe, a Tucker automobile and a model of the Eiffel Tower made from toothpicks.  When you got to the lowest level above the rink there were display cases with model ships and telescopes to view the choppy waters through the many windows.

   Built in 1896 by Adolph Sutro, the place was originally popular for its swimming pools using both sea and fresh water.  However by the time we were going it was only the ice skating rink which was in use.  Like Playland, it had a faded glory about it.  Sutro’s as it was then would be featured in the 1958 movie The Lineup directed by Don Siegel.  A brisk and entertaining low-budget crime thriller featuring the young Eli Wallach as the heavy, its scenes in Sutro’s are a reminder of what a fabulous place it was.  It also had lots of location work on the Embarcadero as it was then.

A scene from The Lineup in which the villains arrive at Sutro’s.
The dramatic scene above the ice skating rink with actors Vaughan Taylor and Eli Wallach.
Having committed murder, Eli Wallach’s character leaves Sutro’s in a hurry.

   Sutro’s was sold to property developer Robert Frazer in 1964.  Frazer had plans to build luxury apartments on the cliffs.  Then on a Sunday late in June, 1966, Sutro’s burned to the ground.  Arson was immediately suspected by SF Fire Chief William Murray as many witnesses had seen a man dressed in khaki fleeing the building moments before the blaze was spotted.

   George Whitney and his brother Leo arrived in San Francisco in 1923 and opened a photographic concession in the amusement park which was then called Chutes at the Beach.  They pioneered a fast photo-finishing process that allowed folks to take pictures home rather than having to wait days for the film to be developed and images printed.  By 1924 the Whitney brothers owned several shooting galleries as well as the quick-photo studio.  In 1926 George Whitney became the general manager of the growing complex of seaside attractions and changed the name to Playland at the Beach.  George and Leo gradually bought up bits of it during the depression when certain concessions began to fail and ultimately purchased the previously leased land which the amusement park occupied.  But their expansion didn’t stop there.  In 1937 George Whitney purchased the then vacant Cliff House from the Sutro estate and reopened it as an upscale roadhouse.  He became known as the ‘Barnum of the Golden Gate’ as he went on to buy Sutro’s Bath House as well.  In 1952 he bought out his brother Leo and continued to run things until his death in 1958.    

   After George Whitney’s death Playland was never quite the same.  For awhile it was operated by his son George Jr who then sold it to Robert Frazer who in turn sold it to Jeremy Ets-Hokin in 1971 and by 4th September, 1972, Playland was torn down and condominiums were built on the property.

   Playland’s demise did not make the news pages of the Chronicle that day but prominent columnist Herb Caen devoted his entire  essay on that Monday to the passing of this cultural phenomenon.  In a column headlined We’ll Never Go There Anymore, Caen rhapsodised about riding the Big Dipper, as the roller coaster I never saw was called and also wrote about concessions he’d enjoyed in his younger days:  “The fading midway, barely alive with yesterday’s laughter.  The Diving Bell, a ride I never did like, stood suspended in rust over a pool of fetid water and beer cans.  At the old rifle range, George Whitney’s first concession 50 years ago, I emptied a load of .22 shells at moving targets so grimy you could barely see them.  In the corner of the Fun House, hideous Laughin’ Sal bobbed up and down, cackling.  Inside I began the long three-story climb to the top of the finest, longest, humpiest wooden slide in the world.  Slide, bump, slide, bump, crash into the wall at the bottom.”

   Herb Caen’s column, which stood on the first page of the want-ads section, was one of the most popular features of the San Francisco Chronicle and a plug in it was highly valued by those seekers of publicity who were lucky enough to be mentioned.  In our house the Chronicle was identified by the sections: News, Herb Caen, Peanuts and Sports.  I guess you’d say his was a gossip column but it always seemed a bit more than that.  He had a passionate love of his adopted city and his columns always championed that fact.  And as Playland, whose faded glory had descended into gruesome decay, prepared to meet the same fate as the magnificent FOX Theatre, Caen’s words, on that day, expressed what many felt: “Goodbye to all that, to part of our youth, and like that youth, we expected Playland to last forever.  It is an odd, sad feeling to have outlived it.”

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK
Amazon USA

Amazon UK

A Baseball Bat for a Guitar

A Baseball Bat for a Guitar

One of the shortcomings of my childhood was the fact that neither my father Blackie nor my mother Beth took an active interest in the education my siblings and I were receiving at school.  There were reasons why this was the case.  My father’s blacklisting on the east coast was why he drove the family across the country in the hope of working on the San Francisco waterfront through the longshore union, the ILWU.  We arrived in Mill Valley in late 1952 and the priority of both my parents was seeing that their four children had food on the table. 

   Good friends had rallied around the Myers family on our arrival in town.  Babbie Dreyfus found us our first house up on Madera Way which is the reason my sisters Nell and Kate went to Old Mill School.  Babbie, in an act of generous friendship, then bought us our house down on Seymour Avenue.  This was why my brother Jim and I went to Homestead School.

   Nell and Kate seemed to take to school work without any parental oversight and my brother Jim muddled along but I was a daydreamer who found school boring, hard work and sometimes scary.  I did receive the basics of an education in that I learned to read, write and do simple arithmetic but Homestead School was never a place I wanted to be and I certainly received no idea of how exciting and interesting the educational process can be.  When the darkness of Sunday evenings closed in a feeling of dread would descend on my soul knowing it was school again in the morning.  

   All my female teachers, for the first four years, were ardent practitioners of corporal punishment and would regularly give angry spankings with rulers to those poor souls whose parents had ticked the box allowing them to to be punished in this way.  The fact that most of the parents, including my own, gave no such permission, did nothing to minimise the atmosphere of terror which filled the classroom whenever the teacher lost her temper and took it out on some poor kid.  So any excuse to stay off school I would seize with great enthusiasm.

   The things which did grab my attention were comic books, movies and pop music.  The comic books came from the Bus Depot, the movies were witnessed at the Sequoia Theatre and the pop records were to be found at Village Music.  It was during my time in Mrs Lewis’s third grade class that Glen Pritzker and I began regularly haunting the record shop where Sara Wilcox would play us any single we wanted to hear.  Discs like Sixteen Tons, The Man With the Golden Arm and Mister Sandman were big hits with me.  

   The very first time I became enamoured of rock ’n roll was when my family went to see Blackboard Jungle at the Sequoia and I heard Bill Haley singing Rock Around The Clock.  It wasn’t too much longer before Elvis Presley came to my attention.  The first Elvis disc I heard at the record shop was Heartbreak Hotel which didn’t impress me very much but when I heard his first LP with Blue Suede Shoes on it, his singing and musical accompaniment appealed greatly to my nine year old sensibility.  Somewhere along the way my parents made me a present of that first LP which was simply titled Elvis Presley.  

   I would listen to it over and over dancing around the room to the infectious rhythms and singing full throated imitations of the words.  Of course I was a young boy and relatively innocent about the lyrics I was mouthing though I could see that songs like I Got A Woman and One-Sided Love Affair were clearly about adult sexual relations, something I had seen a lot of at the Sequoia but really knew nothing about.

   The album cover had a black and white picture of Elvis with his name printed in what I later learned were his favourite colours: pink and green.  He was playing his guitar, which had his name on it, and singing with wild abandon.  On the back cover there were four photos of him, all taken at the same session.  He had his guitar strapped on and seemed to be talking to someone in the top two pictures and performing with the guitar in the bottom two.  These four photos were the only visual clues I had about Elvis as a performer.  Listening to the songs was so up close and personal that I came to think the music belonged to me.  I presumed that Presley always played the guitar on stage.  

Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride. From left: Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley, Bill Black.

   The lead guitar on this album was provided by Scotty Moore and maybe I thought that was Elvis playing all those fabulous licks.  The reality was that he strummed rhythm guitar while Scotty filled the air with his fabulous finger pickin’.  Another rhythmic element which made these recordings so terrific was the slap bass of Bill Black and most of these tracks were recorded at Sam Phillips’ studio at Sun Records in Memphis.

At the Sun Records studio. From left: Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore, Sam Phillips.

   When Colonel Tom Parker bought Elvis’s contract from Phillips and took the singer to RCA the rhythm section Presley had been touring the south with came with him to New York where a few additional songs were cut.  Needless to say I knew none of this as I jigged around my parents’ bedroom imitating the extremely athletic vocals on One Sided Love Affair which also had a great boogie piano.

   As my totally committed imitations persisted I began to wonder what I could use as a guitar.  Blackie had got Jim and I two fielder’s mitts, a hard ball and a baseball bat and my brother and I regularly played catch up on the road above our house.  So I picked up the baseball bat and began using it as a guitar.

   All of this performance art occurred without witnesses when nobody else was around.  Our house at 10 Seymour was always full of music mostly from the record player.  Both my parents were musical in the sense that they could carry a tune but neither of them was a musician.  As a family, we were people who listened to rather than made music.  My older sisters sang at school and even did harmony parts but my brother Jim and I never received such training at Homestead.  We did have a woman who came to instruct us in group singing but it was all unison with no harmonic division.

   A song which I remember my mother Beth singing a lot was Alive, Alive-O all about Molly Malone selling her cockles and mussels in streets wide and narrow.  She also used to sing a song from the 1920s about Barney Google with the Goo-Goo-Googley Eyes.  Blackie also had a very good singing voice and though he had known Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger he didn’t think much of folk music.  Broadway musicals were more his style.  Our record player was always in use and shows like The King and I and Oklahoma were often played.

   So when my fascination with the records of Elvis Presley motivated me to pick up that baseball bat, pretending it was a guitar and to do energetic imitations of him singing such songs as Money Honey and Tryin’ To Get To You, it didn’t go unnoticed.  In fact I even did my Elvis routine in the playground at Homestead School and my baseball bat guitar along with my vocals were engaging enough for my friend Glen Pritzker to pronounce that, when we were grown up, he was going to be my manager.

   But the political world my parents came from was nothing to do with the playground at Homestead.  Beth and Blackie never joined the PTA or engaged in anything social at our our school, though they would put in an appearance on parents night.  My mother was a highly intelligent woman, a published author and a total bookworm.  One time she joined other mothers to prepare the hot dogs which were our special school treat on Thursdays, but that was an isolated incident not to be repeated.  Like my mother, Black was a very intelligent guy but again he took no interest in what we were doing at school. 

   So because of my passion for Elvis it was decided I should have a guitar for Christmas.  Blackie even had a plan for me to learn to play it.  The son of our good friend, Mike Gold, played guitar and he would give me lessons.  The fact that this very plausible scheme had serious flaws in it was invisible to all.

   Mike Gold and his family had recently moved out to San Francisco from New York.  Mike was a well known writer on the political left and had published a best seller in the 1930s entitled Jews Without Money and was also a founding editor of The New Masses.  Both Mike’s sons, Carl and Nick played guitar and as their father was good friends with Pete Seeger they had performed at many a hoe-down with the famous folk singer.

   Mike’s son Nick was in his early twenties and was working as a longshoreman on the San Francisco waterfront.  I visited him at his apartment in North Beach with my guitar.  He was very nice and patient with me and started me off with the fingering for a few chords like C, A and F.  His musical passion, besides the folk music he’d grown up with, was a form of jazz called be-bop.  Rock and roll was not even on his radar.  Nick did not ask me about my musical interests.  He simply told me what I should do and lent me some records to practice to.  The records were of no interest to me at all and, like many a homework assignment, I would begin with the best of intentions, get bored and do something else.  I never learned to play any of the Elvis songs I loved so much.

   Music appreciation can be highly tribal.  People tend to treat the type of music they like with an almost religious reverence and often dismiss other genres out of hand.  There are sub-divisions in every type of music: classical, jazz, folk and of course rock.  Blackie’s idea of getting Nick to teach me was, on the surface, a good idea but it hadn’t been thought through from an educational standpoint.  Nick Gold was simply not the right fit for me musically.

   Many months later while clearing out a room with my brother Jim and I, Blackie came across the guitar, covered with dust.  “Well that was a good investment,” he snarled sarcastically.  His words stabbed me and I immediately felt tremendous shame.

   Had my parents been educationally oriented I might have made better use of the opportunities that were all around me while I was at school.  I would have loved to study music with Mr Greenwood like my friend Mark Symmes and learned to play an instrument but that was not the path I was on.  I was a seeker of experience and that road would take me many places.  I knew as a teenager that I wasn’t qualified to sing the blues because I hadn’t lived enough.  I had to know what I was singing about for real.

Three books have been helpful in writing this piece: Elvis: The Biography by Jerry Hopkins, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer by Patrick Chura

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Fishing in Sausalito

Fishing in Sausalito…

My father Blackie was someone who followed his own compass in life.  At no point during my childhood in Mill Valley was he ever distracted by trends or social norms.  I can remember being with him in some remote location and seeing a ‘No Trespassing’ sign which would always worry me but not Blackie.  He didn’t acknowledge those kinds of barriers.  He had no regard for social status and our home at 10 Seymour Avenue was far from the images you’d see in magazines of American life in the fifties.    He came of age in the late 1920s, 30s and 40s and his style was definitely from those eras rather than the 1950s that my siblings and I were growing up in.

   The status symbols of that time in American life, like fancy cars, television sets and dishwashing machines were so far off his radar that he probably didn’t even know they existed.  My siblings and I knew because of our exposure to the high powered advertising we’d see on our friends’ television sets.  Blackie would not let us have a TV so we relied on the kindness of neighbours to see programmes like Disneyland, The Steve Allen Show or Ozzie and Harriet.  

   Black told me that he never finished high school and went to sea at the age of 14.  Born into a Brooklyn family of seven children, Frederick Nelson Myers got his nickname early because of his coal black hair.  By the time he was twenty years old he’d already seen more of the world than most people do in a lifetime.

   The way he spoke was always entertaining to us kids.  He never used ordinary descriptions of things and his use of profanity had a lyrical, humorous quality to it.  Raised in a religious house where his mother was Catholic and his father Protestant, Blackie began to question his faith early on.  He told me it was his father who, upon hearing him recite: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” challenged him to explain what that meant.  When the young boy couldn’t, the seeds of doubt set in.  Blackie’s nickname for Jesus Christ was ‘Jerusalem Slim’ and when he expressed mild surprise he’d say: “Jesus, Mary and bald headed Joseph.” 

   My father seemed to have a natural patience about life unlike me.  Patience was not a huge feature of my childhood.  As a young person I was someone with little patience.  The idea of waiting for things to happen did not come naturally.  And I’m afraid that neither of my parents were particularly helpful with this deficiency in my character.

   Like many kids I was constantly running and tripping in the playground and this meant I regularly had scabs on my knees.  A scab really should be left alone so that the congealed blood can dry out and fall off naturally but I would always pick at them.  I also noticed on long walks home after school that, as my finger nails grew in length there were new layers arriving in waves on the top of each nail.  Using the thumbnail on my opposite hand I would intercept these new layers, driving the thumbnail underneath them which would shave back the new layer.  I was somehow not content to just let my body get on with the business of replenishing itself.  No.  I had to interfere with it.  

   The few times I engaged in gardening on our land at 10 Seymour I would have to exercise patience and it would be rewarded several days later when the corn I’d planted would come shooting out of the ground which I would find thrilling.  Working in the garden, however, was not a way of life for me unlike Blackie who found it to be a relaxing therapeutic activity.  But I think that Black enjoyed the solitude of such endeavours and never felt the need to introduce us to it.  We had a sizeable patch of land below our house on a hill which was covered with blackberry bushes.  Saturday and Sunday afternoons he would spend doing battle with the blackberry bushes and it sometimes looked like he would never win.  But he did make considerable headway and eventually terraced the earth below our house with wooden planks creating beds of soil which looked like giant steps in which he’d plant lettuce, carrots, string beans and corn.

   Blackie at this time was working as a ship’s clerk on the San Francisco waterfront through the ILWU, the Longshore union.  Occasionally he’d return with bits of treasure from that world and one time a huge bunch of bananas came home with him to hang from a hook on our front porch.  My sister Nell thinks this explained the occasional appearance of tarantula spiders at 10 Seymour Avenue.

   One sunny afternoon Nell, Kate, Jim and I were all reading on the front porch when I noticed something moving on the path in my peripheral vision.  A closer look revealed it to be a tarantula spider, something none of us had ever seen in the real.  It was about the size of a jam jar top with light brown hair all over its legs.  It was ambling slowly across our yard.  Mythology about these creatures was all we knew.  Harry Belafonte singing the line A beautiful bunch of ripe bananas, hides the deadly black tarantula was not lost on us and our father Blackie did tell us that he once saw a man die of a tarantula bite on a dock in Jamaica.  There was a brick wall which stood between the spider and my father’s tool shed.  My siblings and I assembled above this wall and as it moved slowly across the yard we began dropping rocks, bricks and other heavy items but to no avail.  Nothing we dropped even came close to hitting it and eventually the tarantula simply walked away.

   I do remember finding the dead carcasses of the big spiders in jam jars in Blackie’s tool shed and did also have another startling encounter one day when I was helping Blackie dig the earth down among his terraced vegetable patch.  When I lifted a shovelful of earth I noticed a small hole with what looked like something moving inside it.  I peered closer and taking the edge of my shovel, I prised back a big chunk of solid earth.  In a flash this large tarantula spider came running at me.  Just as instantly my father stabbed his shovel down cutting the arachnid in half and killing it.  I was more than a bit traumatised by this incident but like so many occurrences in our family, it was never discussed.

   I already had a dread of tarantula spiders because of seeing Walt Disney’s The Living Desert up at the Lark and to see one charging towards me was the stuff of nightmares.  But Blackie dealt with it and that was that.  When I told Jared Dreyfus about the big spiders on our property he simply didn’t believe me.  “Tarantulas in Mill Valley?  Not on your life.  Scorpions, yes but never tarantulas!”

   The wildlife around our house on Seymour Avenue was pretty diverse.  Deer were regular visitors and, as we had a few apricot trees they would regularly suck the fruit off leaving the pits hanging from the branches.  There was a hill above our house with horses and whenever we had corn on the cob we’d take the corn husks and silk up to feed to them.  I can remember there was a snake season when, out on the Pixie Trail you would stand very still for a few moments until becoming aware of slithering all around you as snakes of different colours moved through the grass.  Also we would occasionally stalk deer.  This required a pair of binoculars and a great deal of patience as it was important to be absolutely still.

   There were times when patience was kind of imposed upon me like when my brother Jim and I would go fishing with Blackie.  It was usually on a Sunday that we would get in his Plymouth station wagon and drive to Sausalito.  We would park somewhere on the north side of town then, with our rods and fishing box, we would walk down the Bridgeway to the Ondine restaurant and find ourselves a spot to sit on the big pier which sat next to it.  There was a guy with a booth on the pier who sold bait which was shrimp.  We’d buy a bag for 10¢ then each of us would bait our hooks.  A piece of shrimp was usually good for about four hooks.  We would peel the thin layer of shell off the shrimp, cut a piece off and dig the hook into it.  When it was firmly connected we would drop our lines into the water.  There was a metal weight on the end of the line to make it sink.

   We would sit there all afternoon with no conversation as Blackie told us that noise would keep the fish away.  So we would occupy ourselves by gently pulling and releasing the line which could get pretty tedious but the tedium was worth it once you got a nibble.  The nibble was such an exciting experience and it’s difficult to compare it to anything else.  The feel of a fish nibbling on your bait is a totally unique sensation and there was no other way to experience it except to sit there for as long as it took.  The nibble was the signal to stand up and pull your rod back and begin reeling the line in.  A fish on your line made the rod bend forward.  Naturally a catch quickly became the object of attention from the other fishermen on the pier and as you turned the handle of the reel you felt the resistance of the fish right up until it broke through the surface of the water.  It was an exciting release.  

   A decision now had to be made as to whether or not it was big enough to keep.  If not, you would  remove the hook from its mouth and throw it back in the drink.  If it was big enough you’d have to kill it by banging its head with the handle of your knife. 

   The fish we caught in Sausalito were rubber lipped perch and I remember one time I caught a particularly huge one.  The irony for me and my brother Jim was that we didn’t eat fish at all but this didn’t stop us from being involved in the preparation.  I don’t believe we ever came home without a catch of at least four or five fish.  The first job was de-scaling them with a knife which was done over a newspaper spread out on the kitchen table.  

   I recall having goldfish from time to time and on one occasion we found one floating at the top of the bowl.  Blackie took the fish in the palm of one hand and massaged it with his finger and it sprang back to life.  Once we bought four little turtles from the pet shop.  Sadly they fell victim to visiting racoons who devoured them all and left only their shells floating in the bowl.  

   Another adventure in pet keeping was when a friend gave us a male and female rabbit.  Blackie constructed a big pen lined with chicken wire next to his tool shed and a smaller one over by the house.  Our friend informed us that once the mother had babies we had to separate her from the father as he would be a danger to the young ones.  She gave berth to a litter of eight little souls.  The pigment of their skins seemed to correspond to the colour of the fur they would grow, so four were pink which grew white fur and the others were darker skinned.  Three were brown and one was black.  The fur grew quickly and before long Jim and I had named each one of them.  There was one we called Policeman as it seemed to be more authoritarian than the others.  Jimmy and I would go out first thing every morning with carrots and green trimmings for them all and would spend the longest time observing them until one morning when tragedy struck.  We went out and found all the babies dead.  The mother had killed each of them.  My brother and I wept uncontrollably as Beth helped us put their little bodies into a brown paper bag and dig a hole down in the garden to bury them.  

   We had a neighbour down on Janes Street named Johnny O’Connor who was a friend of Blackie’s and he had these grey Weimaraner dogs who occasionally would break out and our property was one place they would visit and it seems that Mother Rabbit, alarmed by the aggressive canines, killed her babies.

   This was, I believe, what we considered to be our first serious brush with mortality.  Perhaps the deaths of the four turtles and the killing of the tarantula didn’t quite have the impact of the eight dead bunnies.

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Oh, To Cycle and Swim…

Oh, To Cycle and Swim…

My mother Beth was a wonderful person in so many ways and she was the one I regularly turned to in moments of childhood crisis.  When we were sick she’d nurse us to health and her chocolate chip cookies made my packed school lunch special indeed.  But when it came to anything physically robust involving my brother Jim and I, she was over protective.

   When Jimmy and I began riding bikes she made us promise we would never cycle down the big hill on Molino which took us to Montford below.  To be fair it is a very steep hill but the fact that my brother and I never cycled down it was noticed often by our friends Jimmy Brown and Johnny Lem who would regularly race down that hill on their bikes.  

   “What’s the matter Myers?  Are you chicken?”

   Jim and I just had to accept these carping comments.  The trouble was that Beth had made such a heartfelt case about not cycling down that hill and, having promised we wouldn’t, we didn’t.  This meant we took the less vertiginous Janes Street whenever we rode our bikes down into Homestead Valley.

   For a brief period of time Jim and I were in the Boy Scouts.  Mister Collett was our scoutmaster and we used to attend weekly sessions at the scout hall on East Blithedale.  He taught us to march in a military style and we worked for the various merit badges and I think I even earned my first class badge.  We bought our uniforms from Men’s Mayers which was exciting.  There was a winter trip planned to the snowy Sierras which I was particularly keen on as I had such vivid childhood memories of snow in New York, Connecticut and Minnesota and longed to experience it again.  I was so very excited about this trip.  All the arrangements had been made and my parents had paid for it.  But at the eleventh hour Beth became worried that something might happen to me and I didn’t get to go.  I was terribly disappointed.

   Before Vin Hallinan went off to prison in 1954,  he taught my sisters Nell and Kate to swim.  The Hallinans had a big pool up at their mansion in Ross and Vin regularly gave swimming lessons.  Their pool was a terrific place to learn how to be comfortable in the water.  But when it came time for Jim and I to learn to swim, Beth wouldn’t allow us to have lessons with Vin.  It was probably the aggressively athletic environment the Hallinan boys grew up in which made her mind up.  There were six sons: Butch, Kayo, Tuffy, Dynamite, Ringo and Danny.  They all swam beautifully and were highly athletic.  Football and boxing were the main sports indulged in though they also did gymnastics.

   I think Beth wanted to protect her little boys from what she perceived as Vin’s ‘bullying’ ways.  Vin was a highly educated and well read person who also happened to swear like a longshoreman.  The Hallinan boys were all tough and the rapport Vin had with them was verbally aggressive.  They in turn were aggressive back and I think this reinforced Beth’s opinion that Jim and I shouldn’t learn to swim with him.  But he was, according to Danny, a highly sensitive teacher.  It seems he didn’t learn to swim until he was in the navy and he was well aware of how very frightening the water could be for a beginner.  Danny has always been pretty critical of his dynamic father but when it came to swimming lessons he had nothing but admiration for Vin.  So Beth was totally wrong not to let Jimmy and I learn up at the pool in Ross.  Instead we went for swimming lessons at Tam High during the summer vacation. 

   My memory of these lessons is that we were a group of about fifteen boys and girls all roughly the same age.  The instructor was a young woman who was very gruff and not at all friendly.  There was a good deal of shouting and absolutely no fun.  A sense of unease would come over me as Jim and I entered the boys’ changing room with the smell of chlorine heavy in the air.  I never felt good about going through to the pool.  Once we were in the water my dread left me.  The first thing Madam Shouty had us do was to hold on to the edge and kick.  This got us used to floating on the surface, the position we would find ourselves in while doing the front crawl. 

   There is a strange transitional zone which exists between being incapable of doing something through to the beginnings of some kind of ability.  I remember the day I mastered riding my bike down in the playground at Molino and Janes.  Once I realised that it was actually a balancing act and got comfortable with shifting my weight from side to side I then found that I could make it all the way around the playground albeit a bit wobbly.  Eventually, with practice, the wobbling diminished and by the time that happened I could no longer recall not being able to ride a bike.  It was the same with swimming.  Once I was able to do it a bit I totally forgot about the inability which preceded it.  And we did learn to swim after a fashion.  In fact I even learned to dive into the pool and we basically were equipped to spend summer days in the pool with friends.

   However I still wish that I had learned to swim up at the Hallinans’ as my front crawl was never strong.  My stroke was sloppy and my kicking uneven.  One day out at Stinson Beach I was body surfing.  You would stand out in the water and when a wave swelled behind, you’d start swimming and as the wave caught you, you’d tuck your arms in and ride it.  Jar Dreyfus saw me doing this and commented negatively on the way I was using my arms when swimming to catch the wave.  Jar of course had to learned to swim with Vin.  I was doing a kind of windmill stroke rather than bringing my elbow up out of the water then extending it through and Jared was very critical.  So I was aware that my swimming wasn’t that good but had no help in putting it right.

   My very first experience of a swimming pool occurred at Fred Field’s estate in Connecticut when I was three years old.  My father Blackie and I were sitting by Fred’s pool on a beautiful sunny day.  I stood and looked down into the shimmering blue water which looked absolutely beautiful to my young eyes.  On an impulse I simply jumped in.  Suddenly I was in a different reality down at the bottom of the pool.  There was an explosion of bubbles and I saw the strong eyebrows of my father Blackie as his face came straight at me and the next thing I knew we were back up on the surface.  There was no trauma or upset.  I didn’t cry as there was no time for panic to set in.

   I have always been beguiled by the sight of a blue swimming pool.  There was one behind a wooden fence on Ethel Avenue which we’d always walk past on our way to downtown Mill Valley.  The shimmering reflections off the water played on the wooden fence and I longed to be familiar with what was on the other side of it.  One of our neighbours down by the playground, Kelly Giles, had a swimming pool but nobody’s pool came close to the Hallinans’.  It was about the same size as the one at Tam High and sat behind a big hedge at the end of Lagunitas Road in Ross.  Right next to it was a big gym and from the pool you’d look across a massive expanse of lawn to the mansion at the other end with pillars on the porch. 

   But I never felt confident enough about my swimming to enjoy a day in the Ross pool so most of my swimming happened at Tam.  Such days were terrific fun.  Jim and I would spend all day in the pool horsing around.  It was always too full of screaming kids to ever swim a length as you would constantly bump into others.  After such exertions we’d come out of the changing room with an extra special kind of hunger in our tummies.  We’d walk across the front parking lot and up Miller Avenue to C’s Drive-In.  As we never had that much money on us the most we could afford at C’s was a bag of fries with sauce for fifteen cents.  The sauce came in a little paper tub and consisted of ketchup mixed with French’s mustard.  Not exactly Hollandaise but that special kind of hunger we came out of the pool with made dipping those fries into the magic sauce the greatest delicacy on earth.  If we didn’t have the fifteen cents for this treat we would have to continue on to the Miller Avenue Shopping Centre where we’d buy a 3 Musketeers bar, a Milky Way or a Snickers for a nickel.

   One summer’s day we were in the pool with our friend Henry Serra who lived just around the corner from Homestead School.  I’m not sure exactly what happened.  Maybe Henry was under the water when someone dived in just above him but the result was that suddenly he was seriously unwell and we had to take him home.  It transpired that Henry had concussion.

   Another time after a swimming session at Tam my right ear began to hurt.  It was mildly irritating throughout the day and just got steadily worse.  The optimist in me kept thinking it would get better but it became terribly painful and I finally went to Beth about it.  I remember that she was distracted by something else and didn’t take what I was saying seriously.  This was not her usual way.  She was usually over indulgent but she brusquely said: “All right.  Let’s look at it.”  She grabbed my ear clumsily which sent a searing pain through my head and brought instant tears to my eyes.  Poor Beth suddenly realised that it was serious and felt terrible about her cavalier attitude.  We went to see Doctor Moore who said my inner ear had become infected as a result of water getting in.  He prescribed me some drops which cleared the infection up over a few days.

   The liberation of learning to ride a bike meant that I could now occasionally cycle to Homestead which had its good and bad points.  Both Jim and I were in the habit of running to school as our route was all downhill but the negative aspect of this was having to climb hills on the way home and if you had a bike it was worse.  Our home at 10 Seymour Avenue was on the lower slopes of Mount Tamalpais and the town actually consisted of valleys:  Old Mill, Homestead Valley and Tam Valley.  There were steps up from downtown at several locations including one connecting with our road which began down on Miller Avenue at Una Way.

   So riding a bike in Mill Valley was a mixed experience but it was the way most kids got around.  I never did a paper route but had friends who did.  The paper was the Independent Journal, an afternoon daily which covered mostly Marin County news.  The man in charge of the paper routes was Jack Benjamin.  There was a big tree surrounded by a circular wooden casing you could sit on in the middle of Miller just opposite the 2am Club and this was one of the many drop-off points for the I-J delivery boys.  About six guys would arrive after school on their bikes with a big cloth bag sporting an I-J logo.  Once Jack delivered the stacks of newspapers, their first job was to roll each one up into a baton shape and put a rubber band around it.  If it was raining they had to wrap a sheet of waxed paper around it. 

   David Gilliam, an actor colleague of mine in London who also grew up in Mill Valley remembers: “We always used rubber bands but the order of business was to break open the wrapped stacks of papers and then do the insert, which was like the lifestyle section going into the main news section.  We then rolled, banded and placed them in our bag.  We’d sign for the number of papers we had, which we paid for once a month.  Tossing them was an art because you had to figure out the right position for it to land on the doorstep of some funky wooden house on struts below the street.  They were never above you in the canyons.  Either level or below.  When funds got low, you would spend an evening going around collecting subscription money and marking it down in your book.  Not spending before you had to pay Jack was tough.  He carried quite a few of us as we’d skid into arrears, settling the bill with the IJ himself as he would have had to do.  For me, the highlight was gathering all together at that spot opposite the 2am club where we ribbed each other, planned some mischief and bonded as mates. Great fun at fourteen.”

   I would have found a paper route an awful burdon.  Pushing my bike up the hills was not something I ever enjoyed.  There were yellow school buses which we only took to Homestead when it was raining but when I began sixth grade at Alto it was either taking the bus or riding my bike.  

   The fact that Jim and I each had a bike was due to the benevolence of our rich friends back east.  The money for these came from Fred Field and Ruth and Luke Wilson.  Jim recalls a visit we made to pick up my three speed bike from the Montgomery Ward outlet in Mill Valley just on the other side of Miller from Brown’s.  The clerk brought out a big cardboard box saying it “was all ready to assemble.”  Blackie however was having none of that and told the clerk in no uncertain terms that we’d be back in awhile to pick up the bike after he’d assembled it, which he then did.  

   Summer days were a lot of fun in the Mill Valley of my youth.  Swimming, cycling and riding cardboard boxes down the big hill on the Pixie Trail made me and my friends forget our agonies for a brief moment and enjoy the thrill of being alive in a beautiful place.

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at:

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On the Hill That is Throckmorton…

On The Hill That Is Throckmorton…

In March of 1958 I was in fifth grade at Homestead School and had my eleventh birthday.  I was still hopelessly in love with Lily Burris who didn’t seem to even know I existed.  Mrs Guichard who taught us was probably the prettiest teacher I’d ever had.  Unlike the other women teachers at Homestead she didn’t practice corporal punishment so there were no ritual spankings in her class.  I wasn’t any better as a student but at least I didn’t dread going to school.

   This was the year that Elvis Presley went into the US Army and I read all about his induction down in Memphis, Tennessee in the Chronicle.  I would skim the news and read it when it interested me.  Then I would turn to the funnies and end up gazing at the pages with the movie ads.  On the day Elvis went into the army the big opening at the United Artists was Run Silent, Run Deep which wouldn’t get to the Sequoia for some time.

   Although I did occasionally go into the city to see monster movies that I felt sure would never play at our local picture house, most of my movie going was done at the Sequoia.  The Sequoia Theatre sat at a level angle on the side of the hill which goes up Throckmorton to Blithedale.  There was an alley way on either side of the building and two small shops which nestled within it.  When I was a kid in the 1950s the one on the upper side nearest Bennett’s Variety Store was Village Music, our local record shop, which was one of my regular hangouts.

   I did an awful lot of hanging out as a child.  I’d spend time at the Bus Depot as well as the library up on Lovell.  The Sequoia was not a place you could hang out but I went there on Friday nights, Saturday afternoons for the matinee and again on Sundays when the movie changed.  At the beginning of March I saw Old Yeller, a Walt Disney film.  Disney was always good at bringing your emotions to the forefront and Old Yeller was no exception to that rule.  This film reminded me of Elvis Presley’s record Old Shep.  The emotional manipulation happened mostly in the editing suite where the shots of bears, raccoons, hogs, cows and canines were all stitched together to help tell the story and evoke a sentimental response from the audience.  

   The Sequoia was a wonderful cinema and I loved going there.  If I hung around any part of it while downtown it would be in the tiled alcove behind the box-office where I would study the posters of  the coming attractions.  Many of the films we watched were rubbish but the ritual of going to the pictures was wonderful.  I loved the red carpet as you entered, the candy counter on the right side of the lobby, the steps up into the auditorium, the previews, the cartoons…the works.

   I wouldn’t begin to know how many westerns I saw there and I recall being particularly fascinated by quicksand in cowboy movies.  Of course I never encountered quicksand in real life and its representation in westerns was often different.  In some films it was a boggy swamp and in others it was actual sand that looked like you could walk on it until it started sucking some poor person under its surface.

   The main excitement of a western was seeing the good guys shoot the bad guys for, in the 1950s, bad guys rarely won.  The films which came out of Hollywood in that era all had to adhere to strong censorship.  Swearing was limited to Damn and Hell and only in pictures intended for adults.  Nothing stronger was ever uttered on screen.  That’s not to say that westerns were tame or timid.  The bad guys who rode into town to challenge Kirk Douglas’s Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral were downright ornery and we felt no pity for Lee Van Cleef when Douglas hurled a knife through his heart.  Kirk’s character got dragged into an alliance with Burt Lancaster’s virtuous Wyatt Earp and the good guys won again.  I actually felt like I knew these movie stars personally as I saw them in so many different films.  I also felt like I knew Elvis Presley as I had such an intimate relationship with his records.  There was an Elvis record called One Sided Love Affair and its lyrics describe perfectly the relationship I had with actors on the big screen and performers on record.  Idolatry was nothing new and human beings had been worshipping the famous forever so my illusion of friendship with the likes of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly was part of a well established pattern of mass marketing.

   At the time of his induction, Elvis held the number one spot in the hit parade with Don’t/I Beg Of You.  I hadn’t yet lost my fascination for Presley but I certainly didn’t buy this single.  In fact this was the year that I stopped buying and collecting singles.  There were reasons why I stopped though I wasn’t conscious of them at the time.  My ex-best friend Glen Pritzker had skipped a grade and was no longer in my class.  Glen and I had always gone to Village Music once a week to pick up a copy of Radio KOBY’s Top 40 sheet from the stack on the counter at the record shop.  Sara Wilcox who ran the shop always welcomed the two of us like valued customers.  There was a sound proof booth where we’d go to listen to the many records Sara played for us.  I don’t remember her ever being too busy to play whatever we wanted to hear. 

   Glen and I both followed the charts as a hobby and noted the weekly fluctuations up or down of records we liked.  The cost of a single was about 75¢ which was a lot of money.  The reality was that I could only buy a single when my mother gave me enough for one which wasn’t often.  Sara’s indulgence of Glen and I was key to my passion for collecting singles.  Most of the stores in Mill Valley at that time regarded unaccompanied children with suspicion and contempt.  Both the five and dime stores which I regularly frequented, Ben Franklin and Bennett’s, were staffed by adults who clearly didn’t like children which is odd considering that most of their stock was candy, bubble gum, toys, trading cards and games. They were always so hostile to kids.  They’d keep a beady eye on you while you browsed in case you stole anything.  At the Bus Depot both Margo and Brun would regularly tell boys reading the comic books to put them down.  So it was a blessing that Sara wasn’t like that at all. 

   Though Glen and I were there once a week, it was maybe once every five or six weeks that we’d actually buy a single.  Many of the records I had to wait for or just hear on the radio.  Once I had a single I would play it at home over and over and sing along with it.  Playing a 45 took me into a special world each time I’d drop the needle down onto the groove of the spinning disk.  But all that activity had occurred when Glen was around and he was no longer here.  I remember buying Tequila by The Champs.  I loved this record and played it over and over but the rest of the hit records I simply heard on Radio KOBY.  Sweet Little Sixteen by Chuck Berry, Get A Job by the Silhouettes, Sugartime by the McGuire Sisters and At The Hop by Danny & The Juniors.  These and countless other tunes I heard enough times on the radio to remember them to this day.

   Rock and roll was not the only music I liked.  I enjoyed all the musicals my parents played like Oklahoma, Porgy and Bess and Finian’s Rainbow.  I also loved Beth’s classical recordings like Scheherezade, Beethoven’s 5th and Schubert’s The Trout.  The attitude of most adults towards rock and roll was pretty snooty and I remember never playing my Elvis records when Blackie or Beth was around.  

   I was by now a committed reader and collector of MAD Magazine and those guys were constantly making fun of Elvis so I kind of took those attitudes in my stride and accepted them as the norm.  I first discovered MAD when I was eight and it was still a comic book.  It’s transition to a black and white magazine mystified me at first and I went a whole year without buying it but then in 1957 I started again and became addicted to its humour and art work.  Though I would never sit down and read a book I would devour each new MAD from cover to cover.  My favourite artist was Wally Wood and I became a lifetime fan of his work.  He illustrated a take-off of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not which Ernie Kovacs wrote called Strangely Believe It! and I loved it.  Wood’s animals were adorable, his women were gorgeous and the details of his military hardware was breathtaking.  His style in the monochrome magazine had evolved in a more photographic way.  Humorist Henry Morgan wrote a piece called 12 Bottles which Wood illustrated brilliantly.  “I had twelve bottles of whiskey in my cellar,” wrote Morgan.  “And my wife told me to empty the contents of each and every bottle down the sink – or else!”  Wood’s black and white pictures of Morgan as he begins emptying the first bottle down the drain with the exception of one glass “Which I drank!”  By the fourth bottle he is so inebriated that Wood shows his face as a blur of two images.  His hallucinations in the background include a tiny spider who grows in size, a bottle with arms and legs and an army of tiny one eyed space people.

   Wallace Wood clearly loved horror movies as much as I did and MAD ran a piece on how horror movies had changed since I Was a Teenage Werewolf had become such a sensation.  It was called ECHH, Teen-Age Son of Thing with a preposterous story but Wood drew all this amazing detail in the background of each box like a child taking a tarantula spider for a walk on a leash and a vulture who kept appearing in different panels.  This was part of the fun of reading MAD, to examine all the little details in the background.

   The other magazine I would be collecting as soon as the second edition was published was Famous Monsters of Filmland which I absolutely loved.  No other magazine gave the time of day to scary movies so to finally have one devoted to them was a rare treat.  My parents had a subscription to The New Yorker which arrived in the post every week and though I never read the text I would go through each issue examining all of the many cartoons.  My favourite cartoonist was Charles Addams who always told a weird or sometimes grisly story in his beautifully illustrated pictures.  My sister Nell always got Screen Stories Magazine which I also enjoyed looking at though, again, never reading the text and one of the films featured turned up soon enough at the Sequoia which was Peyton Place.  When I saw it at the Sequoia it connected with my childhood memories of New England with its distinctive seasons.  The sight of stone pathways surrounded by grass made a particularly strong impression on me when I was about four in Connecticut.  Of course the main subject of Peyton Place was sex, a subject I was slowly coming to terms with.  

   I loved my parents very much but when it came to sex education they short changed me.  I remember talking to my mother while she was in the bathtub one day and she told me things about her naked body.  “This is where the seed goes in,” she said pointing to her vaginal area, “And here is where the baby grows,” indicating her tummy.  She also told me about how her breasts grew and filled with milk when she was pregnant.  Now all of what she told me was true and I’m sure she felt she was explaining the facts of life to me but the bit she left out was the sexual act.  That was something I didn’t get briefed on until I was in the third grade and walking home from school with my neighbour Peter Cowger.  He told me in great detail about copulation between men and women and seemed kind of surprised that I didn’t know about it.  I was silently shocked.  “Beth and Blackie did that?”  I was horrified.  Perhaps if I had gone to Beth there and then she might have soothed me through this trauma but like so many other inner events in my life I said nothing.

   I guess as time passed and I grew older I got more comfortable with the concept of sexual intercourse but that initial explanation was a terrible thunderbolt.  So at least I was able to understand the soap opera that Peyton Place was.  And what a soap opera.  It starred Lana Turner and a host of other famous actors and she actually got nominated for an Oscar for her role but the week after I saw the film at the Sequoia my attention was grabbed by a front page headline in the Chronicle:  Lana’s Daughter Kills Gangster.  Girl Tells Cops Hood Threatened Actress.  Cheryl Crane, Lana’s daughter was booked for the murder of Johnny Stompanato, a well known hoodlum who, it transpired, was Lana Turner’s sometimes violent boyfriend.  The Chronicle was full of gruesome details for days after this and the memory of Peyton Place faded.

   Another film involving sex came next to the Sequoia The Long, Hot Summer starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.  This was a southern drama involving a ‘Big Daddy’ type character played in larger than life style by Orson Welles.  My next viewing was Billy Wilder’s Witness For The Prosecution with Charles Laughton as an English barrister defending Tyrone Power on a murder charge.  Seeing movies like this was engaging and in a peculiar way kind of educational.  The ways of life portrayed were nothing like the town I was growing up in.  All the drama was robust with people confronting each other in ways I was not at all used to.  But then that’s what the Sequoia was there for, to take me to far off places and worlds I had never seen.  I guess I just wasn’t content with Mount Tamalpais, Old Mill Park and life in general in such a beautiful place as Mill Valley.

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at:

Amazon USA

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