Retrospective

This promises to be a long, retrospective post. It was a requested by friends who’ve heard incoherent bits and pieces of my life but never a chronological retelling. If you stumbled upon it accidentally, my apology.

I was born in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. In grammar school we were taught to duck and cover beneath our desks at the first flash of light. They didn’t tell us the light would likely blind us. They didn’t tell us that school buildings would become shrapnel, that glass would become sand, that our shadows would be burned into the concrete. We were children after all, and impressionable.

I grew up in revolution. The country was at war with itself. Cities burned, soldiers fought civilians in the streets. Kennedy died. Hendrix died. Patty Hearst survived.

My parents were devoutly religious. They believed God was Republican and Nixon was his prophet. I believe that a vow of silence should be enforced on all clergy and that the president should be allowed unlimited power for a year, then ritually sacrificed on Public Television. But tastefully.

The Doors and Jefferson Airplane played gigs in my high school gym. I learned to surf at Malibu, Rincon, and Ventura County Line while we bombed Hai Phong. Puff the Magic Dragon transformed from an insipid song by Peter, Paul and Mary into a terrifying beast armed with three 7.62 mm Gatling guns, each capable of a sustained firing rate of 6,000 rounds per minute.

Watts blossomed into flame. From the San Fernando Valley we could see the burning city reflected in the clouds. Trees in the southern states were hung with strange fruit. Each evening the network news showed footage of soldiers’ coffins neatly lined on the tarmac. Each year the lines grew longer. The country choked on its own rage.

I left home abruptly at the age of 18 over a disagreement about the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I hitched north along the Pacific Coast Highway, dropped acid in the Big Sur woods, sheltered from a rain storm with hoboes, bought a rucksack in Haight Ashbury, saw a mob almost lynch a man at Wheeler’s Commune, spent all night talking existentialism—a subject I knew nothing about—in Eugene, Oregon. Laid up with in a cheap hotel in Auburn, I called my parents for the first time. I had been drafted. Conscripts were needed for the invasion of Cambodia. Good times.

Some accommodations were required both by the Army and myself. At first they thought I’d make a good infantryman and assigned me to a mortar crew. Perhaps they didn’t really think I would be good at it; they thought I’d be terrible everything else. Eventually I was settled in headquarters of the 4th Mechanized Division, 21st Artillery Battalion. There are relatively few people who can claim they were personally involved with the tactical delivery of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. The warheads we deployed were bigger than those dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The fact that they were deployed on rockets launched from trucks caused us as much concern as the enemy. Twenty miles isn’t much distance between you and your own nuclear blast. My childhood strategy had been duck and cover. The strategy of the 21st Artillery Battalion was launch and run like hell.

It’s unlikely it would have come to that. The 4th Mechanized had only just been withdrawn from the Republic of South Viet Nam. The majority of the enlisted men and a substantial number of noncoms were high as Chinese kites.

The US military transport system was once the most efficient drug distribution system ever devised. Hash from Amsterdam, heroin from Afghanistan, marijuana from Thailand, mescaline, psilocybin, methadone. You could place special orders! It was pure capitalism, a jungle of supply and demand.

After 18 months, I was discharged as a conscientious objector.

Retiring to the desert to live like an anchorite was inevitable. Abusive father, abusive religion, abusive culture, chaos, revolution, death. The Mohave offered nothing more than needed—silence. I lived in the bunk house of an alfalfa farm. The Franklin stove wasn’t big enough to bank the embers through the long winter nights. The plumbing froze hard before dawn. I had to wait for the mid-morning thaw to flush the toilet.

I slept beneath patchwork quilts my dead grandmother made for the foreign missions of the Four Square church. The Four Square Church scared hell out of me when I was a kid. By comparison, Southern Baptists seemed pale and spiritless. In the middle of the preacher’s prayer, when every decent Christian should have their eyes closed and their mouth shut, members of the Four Square Church were likely to stand up and babble in some incomprehensible language. And just as suddenly, sit down again. Before the preacher could regain his tempo and finish his prayer, someone else would interrupt with an interpretation of the previous babble. If I had tried that stunt my mother would have whacked me upside the head with her unabridged edition of the King James Bible.

The foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Northern California, served as another primitive refuge. For several years I lived near the village of Browns Valley. There was a bar, a general store that also served as the post office, and a gas station without any gas. One of those years I lived in a single-wide trailer above the banks of Tennessee Creek. From a distance it looked remarkably like a DC-3 crashed on the hillside—broken back, silver paint peeling in leprous patches, door unhinged and gaping. There was no electricity, no running water, no toilet. There was nothing between my back door and the crest of the Sierra Nevada but range land. At night I read Castaneda and Céline by kerosene lantern. At day I cut wood and practiced calligraphy.

A spark from a trash fire behind my trailer ignited a 2,000 acre brushfire. Fixed-wing aircraft dropped borax as a fire retardant in a valley so narrow they banked to keep their wings from grazing the hillsides. When it was over, the government requested I repay the $200,000 spent putting out the fire. More exactly, insisted. There were men with guns and handcuffs. After awhile it was quietly forgotten. I did, however, move to town where I was less likely to be immolated.

The town was Yuba City, home of Juan Corona, first of the modern serial killers. Juan believed he lived among ghosts. He was not far wrong. The 23 shock treatments were supposed to have cured him. Other than the schizophrenia, violent temper, and homophobia, he was a model worker. His victims were white males, vagrants, drifters, alcoholics. All were stabbed and mutilated with a machete, two deep slashes to the back of the head in the shape of a cross, buried face up with their arms stretched above their heads, their shirts pulled over their faces. In several graves Corona had left incriminating evidence—receipts with his signature, bank deposit slips. He was convicted of 25 murders; there may have been more.

In 1983, Money magazine named Yuba City the worst place to live in the United States.

I stayed several years.

I was still drifting and the current carried me south to a beach in Baja Californ
ia near Rosarito. Rosarito had been the resort of Hollywood stars during Prohibition. They stayed in the Rosarito Beach Hotel and drank at Rene’s Bar—Orson Welles, Mickey Rooney, Ava Gardner, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn. Rita Hayworth and her entourage sprawled across an entire floor when she vacationed with the son of the Aga Khan. When I was there the hotel was empty, the tiles chipped, the palm trees blighted.

I lived further south where the sweeping sand beach turned to stone, in a cinderblock shack without electricity, among a community of expatriates. The community was united by a single activity—heavy drinking. Gallon bottles of Oso Negro vodka were sold with a black plastic bear attached to a chain. Several of the expatriates had hung curtains of black plastic bears in their doorways. Other than drinking, there was nothing else to do but watch a sea lion corpse slowly decay.

When I repatriated to San Diego I had nothing but the clothes in my duffel bag. No money, no job, no prospects. I got a job driving a Yellow Cab. I slept in a wrecked taxi on the back lot until I earned enough to rent a room. I saved my money and moved to a better room. And then I found Scientology. More correctly, Scientology found me. They were marketing aggressively.

In retrospect, I suppose it was one of the strangest stories of my life. The fact that it doesn’t stand out that strongly says something about the rest of my life.

I still appreciate the convoluted irony of a clandestine movement, organized like a corporation, purporting to be a religion, founded by a science fiction writer, with a mythology from a space opera. From Scientology I learned that anyone can believe anything as long as they are surrounded by people who don’t doubt.

Scientology is one of the few “religions” with a rate card. It’s definitely cash and carry. If you can’t pay, there’s always sweat equity. I joined the San Diego Org as a staff member. I was recruited into the Sea Org by Suzette Hubbard, daughter of L. Ron Hubbard and a stunning red head.

The Sea Org was Scientology’s global governing body based in Clearwater, Florida. I boarded a Greyhound bus in San Diego and three days later arrived in Florida. I swear two of those days were spent crossing Texas in the summer heat with a newborn baby and a backed up toilet.

The Sea Org had bought the Jack Tar Hotel in Clearwater. Paying customers were assigned hotel rooms. I was assigned a bunk in what was once the men’s locker room. There was no air conditioning. The bunks were stacked three high. It was like a steerage berth on an emigrant ship. And then they sent me to Washington, DC. I was a man on a mission.

Lord knows why they thought me competent for a mission to the nation’s capital. Maybe competence didn’t matter much. It was August in the Kalorama District. Beautiful houses, many of them foreign embassies, but dreadful humidity. And then the Justice Department indicted Mary Sue Hubbard, wife of the Commodore, on charges of conspiracy, theft of government property, aiding and abetting, obstruction of justice, false declaration before a grand jury, and wiretapping. It was front page news. Seems she and 11 others had been busy breaking into IRS offices, stealing documents damaging to Scientology, and planting false evidence against their enemies. They tried to frame the mayor of Clearwater for hit and run.

I returned to Clearwater only long enough to gather a few things and slip away silently in the night. Mary Sue did hard time in Federal prison. The Commodore, the man who planned it all, let her take the fall. He never saw her again.

Several uneventful years living in Hollywood followed. I lived between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards and woke for the second time in my life with a stranger in the house. Then I became a sailor.

It was the first truly conscious career decision I had made in my life. I had been raised on boats, sail and power, but never considered it a career. Sailing satisfied my need for adventure, provided historic continuity, served as poetic metaphor, and defied convention. It was an elegant solution. I left LA, went walking alone for a few weeks in the high Sierra Nevada, then began walking the docks in San Francisco looking for a job.

For the next ten years my workplace was the deck of a boat, usually on the San Francisco Bay. I taught sailing, captained charter boats, delivered yachts between Hawaii, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle. I celebrated my 30th birthday somewhere off the coast of Oregon, delivering a boat between San Francisco and Seattle. In celebration the mate presented me with a wooden match burning in a muffin. When the Loma Prieta Earthquake rattled San Francisco and broke the Bay Bridge, I commuted between Alameda and the Marina District by inflatable. And I met my wife sailing on the Bay. She grabbed my ass when I was climbing the companion way ladder, captivating my attention. I proposed to her in a tent pitched beside the Sacramento River.

Linda was a programmer for Raychem, a multi-national corporation with headquarters in Menlo Park. She had been sent to London, Paris, and Germany on assignments. She had long since passed the point where programming retained any interest for her.

We were married on Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch overlooking the Carmel Valley and Monastery Beach. We celebrated that night at the Hog’s Breath Saloon and too many others to remember. Our wedding reception was a bonfire on the beach at Half Moon Bay. It was a warm October night, an anomaly in Northern California, with an orange moon sailing across an apocalyptic sky. We burnt a cord of wood that night, the flames so high they scorched the clouds, and people danced in the sand like wiccans.

We bought a boat in South Florida, a 46’ ketch built in France, with the intention of sailing to the Caribbean with friends. Our mistake was renaming the boat. From that moment we were cursed. We sailed Elusive to Ocean City, Maryland, for a summer job running the Sea Rocket. It was Linda’s first long passage. When we entered the channel at Ocean City, we weren’t speaking to each other.

We spent the summer anchored in the bay at Ocean City. The current regularly swept the anchorage at six knots—the anchor line left a rooster tail—but none of the docks had enough water to float our seven foot draft. We were like a goat staked out in tiger country. Late in the summer the tiger arrived: Hurricane Bob. It’s hard to associate something named Bob with the savagery of a hurricane. Bob’s your uncle or the used car salesman who lives down the block. When the hurricane arrived, we were alone in the anchorage with nowhere to go, no place deep enough to float our seven foot draft. Linda, me and a toy poodle named Maui rode out the hurricane onboard.

Turns out we were the only boat in local memory to have spent an entire summer in that awful anchorage.

Replacing the engine in Annapolis delayed our return south until November. Ice fog formed inside the cabin. Anchored in the Solomons on the Chesapeake Bay, returning from the chandlery with hydraulic fluid for the steering system, we ran the inflatable out of gas in a snow storm. In Beaufort, just south of Cape Hatteras, we wrapped a loose chain from the bottom around our prop shaft and began taking on water. We left the boat in a Beaufort yard and went south to Fort Lauderdale to find work for the winter.

Work came in the form of a private yacht named Calypso berthed near Palm Beach. She was owned by a man who made his money by inventing a screw used in aircraft manufacturer. Harvey Phipard was made famous in a book about inventors called Millions from the Mind. In reality he was a disagreeable old man who liked to take the helm and often crashed. Fortunately, he had the money to pay for repairs. When we weren’t in a boatyard we cruised South Florida and the Bahamas or north to Bar Harbor, Maine.

When we left Calypso we moved our boat to Fort Lauderdale and lived onboard while we tried to earn enough money to go cruising. (We never did.) I managed Sea Tow Fort Lauderdale, a marine towing and salvage company. Mostly we towed small boats. Occasionally we towed mega yachts on the New River. Linda sold puppies, very expensive puppies. We bought a Portuguese Water Dog and named her Mizzen.

There seemed little point in living onboard if we never went anywhere. Eventually we surrendered the dream, moved ashore, and sold the boat for a substantial loss to a man who intended to sail her to Israel. Perhaps the bad juju incurred by renaming her ended with our ownership.

Sea Tow was my last professional job as a sailor. I became the operations manager of Hall of Fame Marina which catered to mega yachts in excess of 100 feet, then communications manager for Bluewater Books and Charts. Bluewater was one of the largest retailers of nautical charts in the recreational marine industry. I built my first web site for them in 1995. It was my last job connected with the sea. I became intrigued with digital advertising and never looked back. Ten years later I was working for Microsoft.

6 thoughts on “Retrospective”

  1. I’d like to see how you packed this into a powerpoint presentation. 😉 But where’s David Bowie’s cousin Christina?

  2. Chris, the narrative was already unbearably long so I glissaded over the Hollywood years including our neighbor’s relationship to David Bowie and Jack Palance, dating a deviant radio personality, and your imitations of celebrity cartoon characters. I think that period deserves a post of its own.

  3. Charles, I’m working on a piece about that time — “David Bowie’s cousin borrowed my books, and I want them back!” full of Ouija boards, VJ’s, Two Dollar Bills, the Palomino Club, and Christina’s stories.

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