Archives: BowHunt

Paul McHugh comments:

Here! The first freelance story I sold for actual money, in 1979. A bit of background may amuse. For a present, my girlfriend at the time bought me a leather suit coat, a two-button blazer, a garment that would have looked just right on a Vegas condo salesman. Risking her wrath, I promptly returned it to the store to exchange it for cash, then used that money to buy myself a PSA compound hunting bow. Next, following months of practice, I was ready to stalk the hills of Mendocino County.

Language in this piece is a tad clunky, I must admit. Still, I think a passion for nature still shines through. And you can’t beat its Zen sub-theme: the joys of missing.

A Shot To Remember

A rising sun changed everything from dim shadows to more recognizable shapes: Manzanita and tanoak trees, burned and fallen fir logs, the hollows of deer beds and deer trails that wound through tall, dry grass.

I had been sitting while the sun rose, largely motionless, holding an arrow nocked in my bow, for three hours. I shifted my aching hips and grumbled to myself. This was the third day of my first bowhunt in the hills of California, and though I had seen deer occasionally, and deer sign everywhere, I had yet to come close to drawing an arrow on anything. So far, my hunt had consisted of watching empty trails, feeling my joints creak, and running out of things to think about.

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I was utterly, piercingly, transcendentally bored.
I sighed, yawned. Then I froze, transfixed by a movement on my left. A chipmunk scampered up the log that lay by my side. With its characteristic brisk, whisking motions, it drew nearer, giving me the once-over. Because I remained quite still, it decided I was probably okay. The little guy spent a quarter of an hour on that log, well-within reach of my hand. It frisked about, nibbled on things, and groomed itself as I watched and admired the beautiful shades of its fur, its cheeky insouciance.

When it finally scampered off, I rose to my feet, heartened by the fact that – even if my luck hadn’t drawn a buck – at least it had pulled something alive and wild and interesting near my vicinity.

I trekked back to the hogback ridge where I’d left my truck, then lolled and loitered through the hot part of the day. At mid-afternoon, I shaded my eyes to look up at the peak of the closest mountain, which stood about fifteen hundred feet higher, and worked out a plan for the evening hunt. A breeze now blew steadily from the southwest. My thought was to cut across the ridge, climb the east side to the peak, and approach the top from downwind, in the hope of rousing any late-napping blacktails.

Which is what I did. After struggling for an hour up slopes of crumbling rock sheathed in tangled brush, I made it to the summit, which was largely barren except for a few burned and shattered old firs. But I also discovered a benefit I hadn’t counted on: the view! This peak was the highest for miles. Around and below me, the beige and green waves of all the lesser hills stretched and rolled. Out to the west, some thirty miles away, I could even see a white blanket of fog floating above the Pacific like a second, ghostly ocean, washing softly about the coastal ends of these ridges.

Up here, the wind was keen and fresh, invigorating to breathe. I immediately decided the climb had been worth it, even if I saw no deer. But it seemed very likely that I would see some. Up here, all the deer trails looked well-worn, the black beans of deer droppings were fresh and numerous, and many of their beds were hollowed into the grass.

An arrow nocked, I moved slowly and deliberately upwind, following one of the deer trails, every sense alive for the faintest sound or movement. That was what probably kept me from stepping directly on the rattlesnake. He lay curled in the sunlight. I was about to place a boot in the middle of his coils when I heard the high, excited vibration of his warning rattle. My foot froze in mid-air as I stared down at a fat, healthy and obviously irritated snake an easy forty inches in length. There was no way I could hold my balance in this ridiculous posture. So, smoothly and quietly, I put my raised foot down well behind me, then slowly backed away. The ominous rattling went silent.

I told myself I was calm. But I also felt curiously breathless and weak. I plopped my tail down on a log and fingered the Cutter’s snakebite kit I carried in one pocket. I was extremely grateful that the snake had given me such a timely warning. Just a week earlier, I’d driven a friend of mine off a nearby mountain in a mad rush, while he went into convulsions from an exceptionally severe snakebite. He was still in the hospital, and the memory of that night was fresh. That had been enough rattler experience to last me a lifetime. I wasn’t eager to get a second, even closer look at what a dose of venom could do.

Still, it was entirely fair of the wilderness to turn the tables for a moment, and make me, the hunter, feel like prey.

Sobered, chastened, I stood to continue my stalk. I gave the snake’s turf a wide berth, and chose a trail with greater visibility of the ground. I startled a doe and she took off. Since I was upwind in a place where she’d likely seen no humans before, I figured curiosity would bring her back, and it did. For around three minutes, at a distance of about 18 yards, we waggled our ears at each other. Then she barked, whirled and ran – this time, for good. I continued moving downhill and upwind, looking for a good natural blind that looked upon a trail or a clearing, where I could await the evening deer traffic.

Halfway down from the peak, fighting over rockslides and through tangled branches again, I paused to take a rest break. While munching nuts from my belt pack and sipping water from my bota, I heard the “pat-pat-pat-pat” of animal footfalls, approaching through the mat of leaf litter that had fallen to earth from all that brush. The movement didn’t sound like a deer. So I did not reach for the bow, but just kept myself still, and gazing in the direction of the sound.

It was a coyote, nose down, following my track. This legendary, cleverest of critters trotted up within a dozen feet of me before he realized there was something unusual about that odd-shaped lump sitting beside the gametrail. His yellow eyes widened in shock – a realization that I was the human whom he had been trailing, hit home. He was so addled by surprise that he actually went by me at a distance of eight feet while his sense impressions continued to add up. But as they did so, he moved faster and faster, and then he sprinted off.

I felt enthralled by this close view of a living animal I had previously only seen lying stiff and dead by the roadside, almost indistinguishable from the torn black scraps of tire recaps. The mixed russet, gray, blacks and browns of his lush fur were incredible to see at close range. And those big, yellow, intelligent eyes that had been, however briefly, fixed on mine! After he vanished, I smiled and stretched, half-disbelieving what I had just seen.

But the sun was dropping, and late afternoon light was beginning to fade. I had to move on, and find myself a blind and a clearing. At that point, the hillside split into two draws. Some instinct told me to take the one to the left. There, I located a small clearing laced with well-used trails, and a perfect downwind blind behind the rootball of a fallen fir. I settled in, and tested the draw on my bow. No obstructions. To the east, I could hear faint sounds of a deer moving through brush. I felt calm, confident, and appreciative of the beauty of the scene as light began to soften with dusk.

After only a few minutes had passed, a motion at the far right of the clearing caught my eye. Slowly, and with a grand and a graceful dignity, a large forked-horn buck walked into the clearing. I breathed deeply, quietly, and waited for him to come closer to my position. It was all too perfect: the setting, the mood, the moments that had brought me to this spot and this particular instant in time. I knew that this was my buck, and that my shot would be just right.

He strolled across the clearing, then began to angle slightly away from me. I drew and held, and mentally adjusted my aim for the downhill slope. Range was about forty yards. It was one of those shots where aiming itself seems to shoot your bow, and your drawing hand opens of its own accord. As the shaft sped away from me, it was in the center of my line of vision while I stayed focused on the buck. For a timeless moment I could actually see the bright, spinning dot of the fletching as my arrow flew through the dusky light. Even before it hit, a wild surge of elation filled me. The shot was right on!

But, it missed. Likely, by no more than a finger’s width, but a definite miss. The arrow clattered on rocks behind the buck. That sent him straight up in the air, then he bounded away at blinding speed. He went into the trees, and for the next minute I could hear the measured crash-crash of his long leaps as he made good his escape.

It was very nearly dark now. My legs were trembling from the adrenalin surge as I walked down to retrieve my unblooded broadhead and bent-up Easton shaft. From the place where I recovered the arrow, it still seemed just impossible that I had missed. It was like one of those forehand returns in tennis, where you make a swing as the ball goes by, but nothing happens, and then you inadvertently and unbelievingly check strings on your racket to see if they might have somehow mysteriously dissolved.

Oh well. I shrugged as I hiked off the hill. No, alright, I hadn’t gotten my deer. But I had bagged a glorious outing, with a bouquet of experience that is unavailable for purchase. . . the kind of communion with the wild world that’s probably the bowhunter’s greatest joy, and the kind of day in which actual hunting is almost an excuse. Because fairly quickly, that miss didn’t matter to me very much. As I made my way back to my campsite, I may have walked empty-handed, but I was grinning.

Reviews

August 11, 2010: SF Public Press, Leslie Guevarra
Book Review: Journalist spins riveting tale of murder and intrigue along the California coast.

August 6, 2010: The Monterey Herald
Paul McHugh will present his writing workshop “The Art of the Short Memoir” at 10 a.m. Aug. 29 at The Henry Miller Library in Big Sur.

August 5, 2010: The Modesto Bee, Nancy Soares

Through a Newsman’s Eyes
Ex-Chronicle reporter treads familiar ground in ‘Deadlines’ . . .
“a clever, funny, convincing book with descriptions that bring news in the Bay Area to life. The story fulfills two of the most crucial aspects of a good thriller: It’s unpredictable and it keeps the reader’s interest.”

May 13, 2010: The California Aggie, UC Davis
Writer Paul McHugh to give seminar in University Writing Program lecture series

March 27, 2010: First Online Review
Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery

March 24, 2010: Mt. Shasta News story on “Deadlines” reading (April 1 from 6 to 8 p.m.).

March 4, 2010: Santa Cruz Sentinel story on Paul and Deadlines

February 26, 2010: Kayak surfers weigh in on “Deadlines”

February 28, 2010: Interview in The San Francisco Chronicle’s “96 Hour” section.

February 13, 2010: Photographs from the launch of DEADLINES at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

February 4, 2010: Review of Deadlines by Pete Carey, San Jose Mercury News

Archives: Xmas on the Locked Ward

Paul McHugh comments:

The meaning of Christmas gets reduced to basics on the locked mental health ward of a veteran’s hospital. A day spent there during the holiday season a number of years back still resonates. Sometimes, the rather unhinged don’t seem all that much different from you and me. They have many of the same issues, but they burn with a much greater intensity.

Holiday on the Flight Deck

It’s one of the places we put crazy people: Ward 5C4, in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in the otherwise tony burg of Palo Alto, California. This ward’s official title is, “Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit.” But in a burst of the gallows humor that docs and cops often use to drain off tension, the Stanford medical students and staff here commonly call it, “The Flight Deck.”

Dr. John Rork wears a Formica nametag identifying him as a Resident in Psychiatry. He’s 32 years old, in his third year of post-graduate work at Stanford, and just 18 months away from his board exams. As he leads me up a dank, echoing stairwell toward the fifth floor of the VA, Rork cautions me that the Christmas Season is usually a time of high disturbance among denizens of locked psychiatric wards.

That’s when they feel most keenly the wide gulf that yawns between them and people on the Outside.
Consequently, holidays present a time of extra stress and danger. Staff must pay extra attention to procedures that keep the patients from doing harm to themselves, or to others.

I accompany Rork in part because, as a former student of psychology, I am entertaining the idea of entering the field for a career. But beyond that, I have a simple, much more existential motive. I just want to see how much like me, and unlike me, these confined folks are.

We move down a hall with its faint, stale redolence of medicine, paint, bedpans and disinfectant, and walk toward a big metal door with a tiny square of wired glass in its center. I start to feel a bit apprehensive. Author Ken Kesey did his research for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at the locked wards of a related hospital, the VA in nearby Menlo Park.

Although Kesey’s novel and the movie derived from it are by-now-dated works of fiction, scenes from the book still drift through my mind.
Two surreal details before me at the moment are the cardboard Santa waving a cheery mittened hand, taped to that steel door, and a tired tinsel wreath. Somehow, these nods to the holiday spirit fail to reassure.

Rork tugs a bundle of keys from his pocket, unlocks the door, and leans his body into its mass as he shoves it open.
The good doctor is greeted enthusiastically by a slender black man in a rumpled jump suit and snappy blue hat. Patient, or staff? I wonder.

It’s not immediately easy to pick out staff from the small crowd I see milling around in the entry and common room. No one acts in manner notably bizarre. But after a few minutes, I do catch on. Since patients are not permitted to wear belts, their clothing remains in mild disarray. Also, they seem to have an air of grim, silent struggle, the sort of aura one often perceives hovering about impoverished drifters, or the urban homeless.

The staff, in addition to a neater appearance, also tend to be garbed in lab coats – which I’d initially mistaken as a variation on hospital gowns. In contrast to the mood of the patients, they also seem to broadcast an intentionally upbeat demeanor, as if they seek to communicate optimism to the patients by contagion.

In the common room, men lounge on couches and watch TV. An adjoining room with large glass windows permits observation of the patients. Down the hall is a small commissary, and dorm rooms where beds and steel lockers are arranged in orderly rows. Further along are the office rooms used by the resident doctors, and finally, those famed, tiled seclusion rooms, equipped with padded restraints, to consign patients who go into violent phases – episodes that are rather antiseptically dubbed, “decompensation.”

A senior nurse summons Rork into the glass observation room to tell him what’s gone down in this ward over the 32 hours since he was last on duty.
A day earlier, sponsored by a local Elks Lodge, Santa and his elves had come to 5C4. A small tree had been elaborately trimmed in anticipation. The jolly saint arrived, there was joy, even hilarity, small gifts and useful toiletries were distributed (all razors confiscated immediately afterward, of course).

Then, all too soon, this icon of the holidays vanished, and the ward sank back into a deeper gloom.
Rork and the nurse stand before a plastic board listing the names of all 20 patients in the ward, followed by a letter code that indicated status.

“A” means a patient must wear pajamas and stay confined to the ward. “B” and “C” patients can take escorted trips off the ward to the hospital’s gym or canteen. “D” is a full-privilege status, meaning a patient can spend up to six hours a day off the ward, even engaging in unsupervised activities.

The nurse’s update to Rork is full of shorthand, slang, and the same kind of humor that christened this place as The Flight Deck. She points to a name and says, “Now, this little man is very busy in his head. Really schizing away.”
“He still talking word salad?” Rork asks.
“Maybe. Didn’t hear. He stayed glued to his bed all day. Like he had Elmer’s Glue all over him.” She points again. “Now, Dale left to spend a day with his folks, but a few hours later he came right back to the ward. I don’t know yet exactly what happened. . .”

And so on, until they clear the board. Then there is a call for, “Medication!” and the top half of a dutch door is swung open. Patients line up, and their doses of anti-psychotics and anti-depressants are passed out in paper cups that contain pills, capsules and various colored liquids.

One patient, a short, muscular chap wearing a bruise that encircles one eye, sees me watching him as I sip away at my coffee. He raises his cup, filled with a solution of lithium salts, says, “Cheers,” and splashes it off his tonsils.
I return his toast, and swallow the dregs from my Styrofoam cup. We smile at each other. Evidently, humor about this situation is not solely the province of the medical staff.

Time for Rork’s first consultation with a patient. He brings me into his small, barren office to witness the encounter. The room’s sole furnishings are made of thick steel layered with multiple coats of paint. Rork tells me this is the décor of mental wards across the globe. The monotony of the walls have been somewhat relieved by pastoral scenes cut from calendar photos.

Rork sees me glaze at the pictures.
“Interesting thing,” he says, grinning. “A patient pointed this out to me. I put up three pictures of bridges, right next to each other, without even thinking about it!”
I wonder how many other psychiatrists got a kick out of hearing patients reveal patterns in the doctor’s thinking.

His first patient of the day is a pudgy blond man, Dale, who jetted back into the ward after spending just a few hours with his family.
Slumped in one of the thick steel chairs, staring intensely at Rork, Dale says, “I’d like to love my parents. But something down there just isn’t right. I cried when I left the house, because I was still a kid. Meanwhile, everybody else is acting like an adult! And I’m the oldest. I feel left out.”

Rork uses gentle, insistent questions to navigate between Dale’s statements, drawing lines between the man’s expressions of consternation or anger, and some of its potential causes. This process is slow, but fascinating.

“My dad always made me sit on the bench in baseball. It was the start in my life of the way it was gonna go. But I don’t want that! I want to have a couple of at-bats. I’ve never been an engine, doc. I’ve always been a caboose. I figured I could be an engine, until I went in the service. All my walls started tumbling in then.”

The feelings Dale is describing must be common to many, I think. Wherein lies his madness? Why must he be confined here? Then, as Rork continues to probe, I start to see what sets Dale apart.

“Air seemed different. We’re talking both here and in Greece, now. In Greece, everyone was getting back by cab, and it seemed a nuclear war was happening. ‘Cos I’ve always thought of a nuclear war as dark, and it was plenty dark in Greece. People were looking at me funny. I felt they were talking about me. And now, I feel the people in the hospital are talking about me. But I want to get well! I don’t want to get angry. But by the same token, I don’t want to kill anybody, either.”

“You lost me.”

“I sort of lost it too, doc. I was in the military when it first broke me down. Now, I can’t even make it in civilian life. That’s real scary. I don’t want to go back to war, no way! See, I’m not a crazy person. I don’t talk about myself, I talk about what’s going to happen. And I know I’m not Jesus, even though I’ve got a head. I can speak to you clearly. I’m not that bad. I’ve got God in my head. But I won’t tell you the other one, because then I know you’ll get the secret.”

“You’ve got a god, and a devil?”

“No,” Dale answers craftily. “A fly.”

By the session’s end, Rork has brought the man’s meandering verbal flight back to earth, and they calmly discuss Dale’s prognosis. Rork suggests that, if things go well, in a week or two, maybe Dale can leave 5C4 for an open ward, and start taking occupational therapy. Such positive steps depend, however, on Dale remembering to take his meds.

Dale needs anti-psychotic drugs to make his thought disorder more manageable. He had been on the Outside before, but elected to stop his maintenance doses. That brought on his third nervous breakdown and involuntary return to 5C4. Refusal to medicate is a common cause or ward recidivism, Rork tells me later.

“The patients who come to 5C4 can just about be evenly divided into the three main groups of severe mental illness that modern psychiatry recognizes,” Rork says. “About a third have thought disorders, or schizophrenia, like Dale. Their connection with consensual reality is impaired. So, it manifests as a cognitive disease. Hallucinations and delusions impair goal-directed behavior, and judgment, and reasoning. Our research suggests that most forms of schizophrenia have some sort of genetic base.

“Another third have affective disorders, which are long, substantial deviations in mood. The most common forms are severe depression, and manic-depression – which involves swings from the depressed state to a giddy, manic high. When not at the ends of that spectrum, these people can seem pretty natural, fairly normal.

“Then, there’s personality disorders. These are the people who can’t fit in, no matter what. They have their personality structured in maladapted ways. Their only role in society is that of the oddball, or ‘real character’.”

Rork says a root symptom in most cases, especially with the first two groups, is an imbalance in neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that act as vehicles for transmission of impulses, from nerve to nerve, across the synaptic bridge. High stress aggravates weaknesses in a person’s genetically-ordained nervous system, and trigger an onset of mental illness.

Look upon the brain as a fuse box, and folks with a genetic predisposition to madness could be seen as those with an excess of exposed wiring. Stress that a normal person could experience as a half-hour of mild anxiety will turn a manic-depressive’s fuse box into a three-alarm fire. Anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs are like rolls of plastic electrical tape that a doctor can use to wrap around some of the bare wires, reducing the intensity of the blaze.

Since the 1950s, when Thorazine was discovered, some 15 anti-psychotic drugs have been found (by the mid-1980s – author’s note), with five in common use. These range from Thorazine, considered the weakest but possessing desirable sedative effects, through Navane (mid-range) to Haloperidol, or Haldol, the “elephant gun” of anti-psychotics. There is also lithium, a carbonated salt thought to resemble salts naturally occurring in the brain, and a class of anti-depressants called Tri-cyclics.

“If someone acts psychotic enough to come here to the Flight Deck,” Rork says, “they are usually put on hefty doses of medication until they calm down. Then we set about finding their minimum daily dose. These drugs aren’t entirely benign. They can produce negative side effects, like involuntary tremors, or sometimes shaking feet and a tendency to pace that’s called the Thorazine Shuffle.

“Before I began doing practical psychiatry, I used to think that psychotropic medications were horrible,” Rork adds. “But once you’re around real schizophrenia and you see how miserable these people are, and that a significant percentage gets real help with drugs, it becomes more difficult to maintain that naïve stance.

“Because of these drugs, the number of mental patients at public health institutions is one-tenth of what it was. I wish we had even finer tools, medications that more clearly address the target systems. These are still much too blunt.

“But used carefully, these drugs achieve an amazing purpose in allowing people to live outside institutions. Most of my patients would much rather be out in the world; institutionalization is what they hate. Their biggest fear is that will end up without an independent existence – because independence is at the core of self-esteem for people in this culture. Drugs are in fact a kind of dependency, but nothing like being confined in an institution.”

That innate drive to independence is on full display when all patients gather in the communal room for their daily meeting. A pretty, brunette Psychology Intern opens the floor for business, and Terry, the muscular patient with the bruise around his eye, dives right in with a defiant statement.

“I want a discharge right now! And if I can’t have it, I want ‘D’-level status or ‘D-B’ at worst!”

A chorus of other patients clamor for an improved status on the ward. It’s as though the status board were a ladder to sanity and freedom, and each grade a rung. Enhancing mobility to the Outside stays the primary order of business, until it’s announced that Dr. Rork has finished his residency, and will depart from the ward in a few days.

This is a double-whammy. Not only are the patients losing a friend, but Rork’s free, outward bound trajectory illustrates a kind of mobility about which they can only dream.

An elderly patient launches an abrupt tirade against the night staff. “They ordered a strip search and wouldn’t tell me why! It’s part and parcel of the jailer mentality of this place! You staff take a great delight in acting like cops!” He levels a bony finger at Rork. “You can go back to Stanford and get down in the scum with Reagan and Nixon and Billy Graham and all the other capitalist swine. I don’t really care.”

John nods calmly. “And what about Nina and Karen?” he asks. These women are an intern and a resident, both of whom are also leaving. They sit beside the old man as he rants.

He sneers, “I wouldn’t mind if a Mack truck ran over them.”

This launches a wave of other comments that are less personally directed, but just as critical of staff arrogance and assertive of the patients’ inalienable rights. Esprit de corps unites the patients as they dump their grievances. Many of them give each other winks and high signs during this group display.
But the thing that impresses me most is that Nina and Karen look as if their feelings have been genuinely hurt by the raging old man.

They have spent a lot of therapeutic time with him. This tells me that these women made themselves available for genuine interactions, did not utterly armor themselves, or withdraw behind the shield of their identity as staff.
As I mention this impression with Rork, later, he stares at me as if I am reporting I had just struck gold in his back yard.

“That’s right!” he says. “If patients get the idea that you regard them as some form of dangerous alien, that only makes your work harder. So, you’ve got to let them touch you. You’ve got to hold yourself somewhat vulnerable to them.”

Then the staff holds a meeting about the meeting. They agree that the patients had to express anger about the departure of Rork, Karen and Nina.

“The clue,” Rork says, “is that the anger was directed at the staff in general. They generalize as a form of avoidance. But it’s important not to fall for that, because it’s not a therapeutic form of release. Most of the public running around out there on the street does that too. They all project affect away, instead of owning up to what it actually is.”

Since so much energy was released in the group meeting, the staff predict the rest of the day will be fairly quiet. It is, allowing me to wander around the common room, hanging out and talking to the guys. As I do so, I wonder about a question that all of Rork’s comments have posed. Can it be true that the very crazy are not all that different from you and me? That they simply have many of the problems of normalcy writ exceptionally large, etched into their minds and lives by the Kafka-esque machine of their own aberrant biology?

Sometimes, the similarities may seem hard to track, as in the case of Elliott, who sits by himself in a corner, woofing down cigarette after cigarette. He wears his hair in a high, greasy pompadour, sits on the edge of his seat with charm school poise, and talks like Blanche DuBois. He’s one of several Vietnam veterans present. I seek to use that as a conversational opener, and ask him about his experiences there.

All Elliott will say is, “Ah was loved in Vietnam. I was very deeply loved, in fact, from bootcamp right on through Vietnam.”

Then he gracefully rises and minces across the room to light another cigarette from the tiny electric coil set into one wall.
Even though I can only speculate about what Elliott’s inner reality is like, parts of him are congruous, they make a certain kind of sense – and it’s the same for the others. In fact, the wildest, most incohernet babbler in the place is not any patient, but the big color TV that alternately blathers and croons from its niche in the corner.

I make additional contact with Terry, the bruised manic-depressive who had come to the ward after getting himself into a barroom brawl in Monterey. I can sense his chagrin at finding himself back on the Flight Deck. I share some of my own past with him, and it turns out we have in common a Catholic boyhood.

He says he maintains a deep regard for the Franciscan brothers who taught him. But these days, he tends more toward the free-lance mysticism of Krishnamurti.
“You can discover states of mystical consciousness that are just absolutely blinding in their purity, and the sweeping vastness of your perception. . .” Terry pauses, and gives me a sidelong glance. “So I bet you think, that sounds pretty close to a description of a manic state, huh?”

I ruefully nod, and Terry bursts out laughing.

“Well, I have to admit,” he says, “there’s probably more than a little similarity between the two!”

We finish by trading back and forth some altar boy responses from the old Latin mass, and I sang him some Gregorian chant. It is a humor-filled, friendly and even poetic encounter that would seem valuable in any setting, but is particularly poignant here.

Just under half the men in the ward are actual combat bets. But all are veterans of a war waged for years behind their eyes. The shock, the weariness of that, stays evident. Achieving any sort of ceasefire is just the start of making their way toward a peaceable, promised land. Even if that storm of inner chaos can be subdued, other obstacles and hurdles loom.

“The VA system is kind of a ‘borderline’ mother,” Rork says. “One who is overwhelmed by the nurture needs of her children, and conveys that by falling short in a couple of key areas. But at the same time, if the children start to pull away, she threatens to cut off even the scant support she does provide.

“See, as it’s currently set up, the VA pays people to stay crazy. A one-hundred-percent, service-connected, disabled vet gets thousands of dollars per year, tax-free – much more than most could ever hope to make free and clear on the Outside. The trick is to look and sound sick enough to get all that money, but seem well enough so they can stay on the street and spend it. You have to be clever to maintain such a fine line.

“So the guys who want to achieve real independence have a much tougher row to hoe. They have to desperately want to wean themselves off that support, in order to even have a chance of doing so.”

Heroism was not one of the things I expected to find on the ward, but I’m starting to learn how to see it. Rork has two more consultations that day.
One is with a young man who retreated into a fantasy realm after being sexually brutalized in his early teens. But over the past three years, he has moved out from the Flight Deck and on to self-sufficiency on the street. He has a romantic relationship, and he has just won a raise at his job. Returns to 5C4 now solely as an outpatient.

He and Rork discuss his medley of anxieties and strategies for coping like two experienced players dissecting a game of chess.
That sort of graduate status is what Malcolm, Rork’s final interview of the day, seeks to achieve.

Malcolm is a tall, dark, bearded and slender man who has just advanced to ‘D’ status and is looking next for a discharge. The flesh on Malcom’s lips and fingers are stained like old ivory by all the cigarettes he’s smoked during his confinement. His hands and feet shake from dyskinesia – tremors that are a common side effect of anti-psychotic drugs.

But he speaks calmly and clearly, and has an aristocratic, faintly sardonic air about him that I like.
Malcolm pulls out some recent crayon drawings to show Rork. The first illustrates a rabbit by means of concentric lines of vibrant, clashing color. It’s a classic example of schizophrenic art. At the moment, it reminds me of Huichol Indian yarn drawings, which I mention to Malcolm.

“Really? Interesting,” Malcolm says. “I’m trying to portray a bunny who’s recuperating after three weeks on Navane.”

We pore through other drawings, with Rork asking questions about symbolism and meaning. Malcolm sometimes answers, sometimes fends him off. I simply assess them as art. I particularly admire one titled, “MARCOS!” that mourns the assassination of Benigno Aquino. And I like a drawing of a rhinoceros that suggests that near-sighted animal’s suspicious, wary soul.

Pleased by my interest, Malcolm uses his new privileges to invite me out to the VA hospital canteen for a cup of coffee. The big steel door that closes off the ward is unlocked for us, and we head downstairs and then out into a cool, blustery, December afternoon.

It’s a huge relief to be leave behind the stagnant, medicinal, smoky are of the Flight Deck. We stride along, kicking through drifts of sere leaves scattered by the most recent winter storm.

“The rough edge of mind changes people who get close to it,” Malcolm volunteers cryptically.
I ask him what he means.

“It’s hard to explain. You’re either a virgin, or you’re not. You’re either exposed to that, and it changes you forever – or it’s hard to know what it’s all about, whether you’re a patient or a doctor. No matter what a person is like before he’s in the system, once he’s expressed himself in a hostile way, taken the drugs, been bobbled around the system for a while, he’s then different from that point on.

“So, this rough edge of mind which changes him, is that part which is confusing, which is destroying, which is unholy. Which is, ultimately, irrelevant.”

Outside the entry to the canteen, Malcolm pauses. Some sort of half-crippled insect has landed on his boot, and he stops, stares at it. I look, too. The bug has tattered wings, and appears to close to the end of its life-cycle, prepared to die after the exhaustion of mating. Malcolm tenderly plucks it off his boot and deposits it on the sidewalk.

“Well, I guess he’s on his own now,” Malcolm says. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”

Inside the canteen and sipping our dark, bitter brew, Malcolm tells me more about life on the ward.
“You get to see a lot in this system. Big moments come through for people. A lot of big suffering. Bursts of joy, too. Both can occur in the same person, I think, because of mercy. In retrospect, one is always thankful for feeling healed in the new moment. When a clear space comes, you can look at the past, talk about it, and it doesn’t really mean anything. But when you are inside the suffering, everything only hurts, and that’s why they give you the drugs. To relieve pain, and give you a chance to get your mind together.

“That’s their theory, anyhow, and the practice is pretty close to that. You’ve got to make allowances, because we’re all the same, and we’re all different, too. It’s like any other classroom situation. Some people get the message, some don’t. Some already know it, but can’t put it into practice.”

Watching Malcolm speak, I think of how weary he looks, so aged beyond his years. Yet, there’s also the glow of an inner grit and determination in him. He resembles some early frontiersman, who has recently crossed the Great Basin desert, alone and on foot.

Malcolm tells me of his plans for the future. He’s located some broken medical equipment stored at the hospital, and wants to start a business repairing and returning it to use.

“There’s no restrictions on me. I’m a dischargeable patient. The only thing stopping me is a lack of housing. I get disability from the military, and I have the chance of work here. I don’t to find a salaried job, though someday I’d like a chance to try that. I know that there will be hindrances. But as far as I can see, the next six months look bright. If I can just keep practicing in the same way. Still, I know there will be many decisions ahead of me, about things that may not be so easily accomplished.”

Malcolm places both of his stained and shaking hands together, palms upward, and shrugs. He looks like someone uncertain, lost in a quandary.

But since it’s Christmas, I prefer to think that he looks like someone about to receive a gift. Perhaps a universal, endlessly recyclable gift, something he gives to himself, something given to him by Dr. Rork, and the staff, and his friends on the Flight Deck. Perhaps it’s something I am giving to him now, and he is giving it to me also, by taking me out to coffee and offering to explain things about the ward.

There’s an amazing mental achievement most of us accomplish steadily – without even needing to think about it, if we are fortunate. Call it sanity, call it normalcy. But we should never take for granted the small, healing touches of friendship and nurture, given and received, that collectively help us to make sanity occur.

Note: To protect privacy, all names were altered and identities concealed in the story above.

Archives: First Ascent of Mount Trashmore

Mt. Trashmore reverses that ancient poet’s line. Here, mice labored to give birth to a mountain.

That was among my last lucid perceptions as I struggled upward through a methane miasma. Up here, at elevations above 100 feet, consciousness itself became mighty Trashmore’s chew toy.

Strands of coarse crass coiled like snakes around my ankles. Jagged pebbles slipped into my sandals. Nevertheless, an awestruck wonder grew in my mind. After all, I was amid throes of an epic quest: the first solo ascent of the highest peak in the continental U. S. (south of Miami).

Before I charged for the peak, I’d been forced to wait out the capricious South Florida monsoon. I’d grown a bit cranky, watching my jalousie of opportunity slowly open, only to slam shut before I could swing out of my lawn hammock.

Now, all those besotted hours of waiting were over. The supreme physical challenge had begun. I should emphasize that the mountain I had challenged was none of the Almighty’s handiwork. Men had reared this peak against the heavens! With a foundation laid in the 1980s, by 1992, Trashmore already comprised a heap of some eight million tons of festering garbage. The good people of South Florida charged determinedly into the task of erecting a monument as emblematic of our culture as the Cheops pyramid is of that antique empire of the pharaohs.

The erection of Mount Trashmore is based upon stats that far surpass ordinary American excreta. In the U.S., each person, on average, daily generates about 3.5 pounds of garbage. The folks in Florida, demonstrating a clear sense of mission, more than double this figure. They produce fully 8 pounds of trash, per person, per day. Much of that product gets heaped on Trashmore – or other “vertical landfills” – to bring badly needed relief to the formerly boringly level South Florida horizon line.

Sadly, some of their waste does get, well, wasted, by being burned up in giant incinerators. And so, this refuse merely fumigates the landscape, instead of adding to more lasting monuments to excess, like this fine, pyramidal dump.

Trashmore and her sister peaks did score a literal windfall from Hurricane Andrew’s exertions, in late 1992. Doubtless, you’ve seen the video footage. Thousands of poorly designed, inadequately inspected and shoddily built homes went whiffff! under the sledgehammer blows of a storm any freshman student of meteorology could have predicted would sooner or later occur.

But Trashmore is much more than a convenient place to stash disassembled trailer parks and substandard housing. It speaks to me of man’s lust to re-make the earth in his own image. Culturally, it has even more significance than the gambling chip midden hidden outside the Vatican’s rear windows. Aesthetically, once the trash is frosted with dirt and planted with brush, it will our answer to the hanging gardens that once bloomed on Nebuchadenazzer’s ziggurats.

Such musings, fueled by my panting breaths of methane and ammonia (spiked with the odd passing zephyr of oxygen) heaved through my feverish brain as I stumbled up Trashmore. I was just beginning to realize that these slopes could be a prime spot for astronauts to train for manned missions to the moons of Uranus, when my attention was seized by a clumsy rustling in a wilted clump of coarse weeds just before me.

Could it be…? Yes! I thrust myself through the noisome vegetation to see scores of the legendary garuda birds flapping about on an exposed seam of that unique Trashmore formation, ordurite. The foul fowl gaped at me – perhaps the first human to ever invade their sacred domain. They stretched out long, naked necks, clacked their dripping beaks, waddled, then  launched themselves into the choking air. Some of the lowlanders mis-represent these grand garudas as a species of buzzard or vulture. But they’ve likely never seen them soar, free and glorious, at the epicenter of their habitat.

Before me now, for an awe-inspiring moment, one blotted out the dim sun. Surrounded by its streaming rays, he was almost heraldic, with a maggot-riddled mullet clenched in his right talon, a crumpled tract of abandoned political promises in his left.

In days of yore, Florida’s skies were clotted with lesser birds, such as roseate spoonbills, egrets, wood storks, and other feathered water lovers winging in and out of the Everglades. However, the wetlands, clean water flows and natural foods needed by them dwindled, while supplies of rotting roadkill and garbage rose spectacularly. And so, the songbirds, waterbirds, woodpeckers and such were forced to move on, and these mighty garudas came to rule the skies.

I spun around, to wave my arms and share my joy at this moment of grand discovery with my support crew, waiting down out our Base Winnebago.  However, even at the immense distance of at least a quarter-mile, I was able to see that no one stood watch on the other side of the barrier fence, at our tripod-mounted spotting scope. Then it was that I knew that succeeding at this adventure-of- a- lifetime would depend entirely upon my own skills, penetrating vision and bold decision-making.

Then a happy thought came. Perhaps my support crew had simply strolled away for a moment to bob baits in the torpid stream we called Miasma Creek – which the locals know as “The River of the Three-Eyed Fish.” This dank rivulet meanders around – not the foothills, since there are none – but the ingrown toenails of Trashmore.

An unsung attribute of Trashmore is that this manmade mountain concocts springs and freshets of a type never before seen on the face of the earth. Juices deep within this gargantuan heap, by methods arcane, slowly ooze together, blending into a noxious stew. This cocktail of ammonia-laden leachate is collected in a system of interior drains cleverly linked by the mountain’s builders, then mixed with sewage donated by generous local communities.

The resulting witch’s brew is then deep-well injected into salt caverns 3,200 feet below Florida’s limestone layer. It is unknown at present if these caves have any outlets that leak out to the sea, or upward, into the state’s freshwater aquifer. Even if it lies dormant for a long while, the potent broth obviously provides a rich legacy, an awesomely abundant offering for the delectation of future generations.

Smiling at the thought that my loyal support crew was even now likely trying to harpoon my victory dinner in the bubbling waters of Miasma Creek, I plodded onward, ever upward. Distant though it might be, I could say in no uncertain terms that I had begun to smell the summit.

I must allow, I did experience some difficulty at the headwall, where Mallomar and Irving had last been glimpsed by their basecamp observers shortly before they vanished forever into the Trashmore fastness, leaving behind nary a trace of their ultimate fate. Lurching up over this obstacle, I stubbed my toe against some rusty oxygen tanks, and needed to sweep them and broken camera out of my way with the Batso Mallet. Then I got this crucial tool all tangled up in a rotten Aloha shirt wrapped around a heap of bones. But eventually, I was free to resume the ascent.

One step. Two steps. Skip once, hop on both feet, skip and stop. I repeated this mind-numbing rhythm over and over. Over and over. Over and over. Over and over. The ultimate mountaineer must respond to each new challenge with some creative movement. It is only because of our superior mental and physical gifts that we are able to tread upon such lofty and sacred sites, places in which the great, coagulated mass of humanity remains utterly uninterested.

Finally, at last, in far more time than it takes to tell it, I was there! Mirabile dictu. I had no more steps to take. I teetered upon the very pinnacle of Trashmore! Tears of ersatz ecstasy spurted from my eyes. Oh, how my mates had all sneered when I had announced this project, calling me only a sport-climbing gym rat. Well, they’d be laughing out of the other side of their snouts now, with a climb like this to my credit!

A solo first ascent of Trashmore, by its feared diretissima, would ‘scribe my name in glory, far above peak baggers with mere bagatelles to their credit – such as taking K-2, Makalu and Desilu in a single weekend, the Himalaya’s Triple Crown. Let others brag about their skill on verglass-sheathed rock, jumbled glacial seracs and overhanging ice. My abilities on crushed plastic, crumpled cans and wet newspaper had been proven supreme.

Through a beige, murky smaze to the north, I could now make out the fabled Miami skyline, now slightly eroded by impact from small arms fire and rocket grenades after the death of Mayor Sonny Crockett. Off to the south, Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant reared up the mighty phalli of its cooling towers.

I contemplated the magnificent landscape we are bequeathing to following generations.

“Someday,” I murmured, “all of this will be yours. Whether you want it, or not!”

I whipped out a notebook to record the moment, and jot down a panegyric to the mountain of refuse that bulked beneath my feet.

“O Mighty Trashmore – thou art the art of man above nature. It is magnificent that a peak should be so speedily erected where none stood before. In more benighted locales, people may purblindly seek to minimize trash, to remove and conceal it. Here, it’s potential is unleashed!

“In areas like Everest, misguided mountaineers sometimes organize expeditions to police litter. Fools! Can’t they see how the Himalaya’s paltry tectonic upthrust of a few annual centimeters could be wondrously enhanced? All they need do to seize the opportunity is pack all that trash on up to the summit, then stack it there!

“Today’s waste can form the building blocks of Tomorrowland. Some Florida eco-freaks insist on seeing Trashmore shackled to a height of no more than 250 feet. But I say, ‘Set Trashmore free!’ Bring in truckloads of refuse from neighboring states! Import it by garbage barge from around the world get Trashmore up above 12,500 feet – and then install ski lifts! In southern Florida! Can’t you just see it?

“And we need not stop there. The Appalachians for instance – now poor, worn-down, stunted hills, could serve as the foundation for a new crest of peaks far mightier than any that stood here in geologic history.

“Coming generations would simply reel at this achievement. Indeed, we can feel certain that, with epic monuments to our way of life like Mount Trashmore to our credit, they will never, ever forget us. Forgiveness, of course, might be another matter.

Riders on the Storm

Aidan’s beat-up kayak rode low in the water. He still kept trying to bail it out with that plastic cup he kept stuffed under his kayak’s spraydeck. But the boat’s lumpy patches and cracked seams, tweaked open by all the combined torque of two hours spent riding big surf, now let seawater gush in faster than he could pitch it out. So the Irish surfer said he’d just paddle on in, hoping to reach shore before he sank.

“Eh very like, I’ll make it, y’know,” Aidan Doyle proclaimed, his bass voice burred by a County Clare brogue. His grin was broad and cocky.

Cold storm swells, twelve feet high, grey and shaggy with broken foam, steamed in off the North Atlantic to hammer on cliffs of Ireland’s western coast.

Aidan’s faith was impressive, but I did not share it.

A low beach where we’d launched was no longer attainable. Tide had come up. And the storm seas had steadily mounted higher, too. Now those hoary combers exploded right against the base of the black cliffs. Get slammed into that glistening, spray-shellacked wall, and your body and boat would be broken up like a crab on a platter.

Our sole hope for a safe landing lay in stroking across Lahinch Bay, then trying to come in on a steep slope paved in boulders.

I wondered: Did Aiden truly know how long he had before his kayak was transformed into a submarine?.

We angled toward that rocky beach. Waves always arrive in different sizes, of course. A crucial line of demarcation for us would be that point where the very largest waves walled up to topple over.

If we could just get inside that zone, catch and ride a medium-size wave, that would be the best tactic. But once we crossed that line, we also could be snatched up and mauled by a giant. So, we kept a weather eye to sea.

Aidan’s scrofulous old boat wallowed. Maybe a dozen gallons sloshed around in the cockpit. Before it went totally awash, and he was forced to abandon the kayak and swim for his life, he had to catch a wave, any wave, and score a boost in toward the beach.
Maybe I could inspire him by catching one. In fact, here came a huffing beast just about the right size. Better grab it. Because the next one hulking up just behind it seemed like Godzilla.  My chosen wave walled to my stern. With a bow sweep stroke, I spun the prow of my Phoenix Arc around.

I took paddle strokes to accelerate, but felt bogged down as I rose up the wall, trying to get my kayak moving fast enough to catch the ride. Finally, I broke loose and fell down the face. From a paddling speed of 5 mph, I suddenly flew along at 30. I got on a left cut, with the bow low and tail high to maximize speed. Hissing spray shot up to sting my eyes. The swell steepened, and my speed rose. The fiberglass hull flexed sinuously under my butt . . . .

Agghh. Angle alert.  The face of the wave was rising, steepening, going vertical. A 12-foot swell can make a 24 foot-high face. This big dude would reach the height of a two-story building, and it was to tumble in seconds – a blow I didn’t want to take. Time to hit the silks. I shifted from ruddering the paddle blade on the right, dabbed a left rudder to initiate, then stabbed a hard right sweep stroke off the bow to confirm and enhance the sharpness of my turn. I leaned into the wave wall as it went vertical, and took just one more hard forward stroke on the right.

Pahh-hh-h-h-h. . . ! I was suddenly free, clear, and flying up into the air, as that large wave, with a low growl and a pneumatic WHUMPFF thundered down into total close-out behind and below me. Beauty. I’ve performed my first aerial move, ever. Great time to pull one off!

But now, where was Aidan? .

Riding curled in the white-knuckled grip of Godzilla, the giant wave just behind mine.  That vast mound of jumbled water — which luckily had broken outside of his position – was indeed his fastest ticket to shore. And now it was going to be mine, too. No way to avoid it. The seething mass loomed behind me, scooped me up, and then we both hurtled straight for the rocky beach.

It was backwash off the shore that saved us. It disrupted the hurtling pile of foam we rode, dampened our speed, served as a counterforce. In the last hundred yards before the rock slope, we bumped through a roiling fleece of confused waters. I flipped over and did a wet exit close to shore, found my footing, put the boat upside down on my helmet, and waded out onto the boulders. Aidan had preceded me. Without hesitation, he’d ridden a heap of foam right up onto the rocks, then let it bonk him down on that hard, uneven shelf. It was suddenly quite clear how his boat had earned its network of leaky patches.

That same cocky grin was still on him. Our eyes met in a flash of shared delight – we’d snatched plenty of rides from the storm, and still made it in!

Aidan and I were supposed to be combatants, antagonists. We’d faced each other in opening rounds of the 1988 Home International and European Surf Championships. This international contest, to determine the world champs of kayak surfing, had brought together teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, and — for the very first time — the United States. This contest was my big reason for coming over.

This storm swell had arrived during a day off, between contest sessions. Aidan had turned to me and said, “Well, the event got us all here. Now, let’s go have fun!”

After my successful landing with Aidan, I stood for a while on that boulder-strewn slope to gaze out over the heaving sea. My kin had come from these Scottish and Irish isles. That prompted me to do a large amount of background reading and research before I’d winged into Shannon aboard an Aer Lingus red-eye from New York. So I was quite aware that I trod upon a landscape drenched in history. Stories of the past, intense sensing of the present, and a spellbinding resonance that seemed to waft up from my very DNA were psychic companions that came along on every mile I traveled in Ireland.

As I gazed out on the cold smoke of the storm-tossed Atlantic, I suddenly realized that it was almost 400 years to the day when many ships of Spain’s Great Armada had foundered here, wracked upon the rocky promontories of County Clare and western Ireland.
Admiral Medina Sedonia’s fleet, mauled by Drake, had fled around Scotland only to find itself in a fatal struggle with an enemy even more merciless.
Some of my great, great, great, great, great, great-grandfathers might well have stood on this very shore at Lahinch, to watch King Phillip’s grand galleons founder, and groan, and wrench apart, as they were driven hard upon the rocks. My great-grandfather had left for America from Sligo, 163 years before the present, a county which lay way around this emerald Isle to the northeast. But plenty of McHugh headstones adorned County Clare graveyards all  around Lahinch.

I thought about what it had been like for those grizzled Irish warriors — already scarred as a people from earlier centuries of battle with the Vikings, the Normans and the English. Many  had watched without sympathy as survivors from the Spanish seaborne infantry floundered ashore in their armor, like so many steelclad lobsters, pleading in a strange tongue for mercy and coughing up the sea.

You hold the broadsword, a boarspear, or a pike. Which course do you choose, as the dark-eyed, trembling stranger falls to his knees? Slay him to filch his scant belongings? Execute him, then report the death to the English overlords in return for their rewards and praise? Or  rescue and hide him, then covertly ship him back to Spain, so he might return to annoy Drake and Queen Elizabeth upon another day? History says all three of these choices were made, at various hours, in varying locales.

Warfare is humanity’s ultimate risk sport. It pins bulls-eyes atop our hearts. In war, you don’t get whacked by some vagrant, indifferent force. You are targeted by others who aim to kill you, with great specificity. The fabulous gifts of human beings, talents of vision, logic and will, become focused on exterminating your tribal unit, and you, as a representative individual. And y’know, we seem built for that sort of thing. At birth, we hold foetal forms of all lusts and drives needed for wreaking mayhem on any perceived enemy.

To dig up the root for that, you’d need a spade with quite a long handle. Go back four million years to A. anamensis and Ardipithecus ramidus. . . the “ground ape” who didn’t need to swing through trees to survive, but stepped out from the sheltering forest onto savannahs where hooves of the great herds thundered, and giant cats stealthily stalked. Now, go one step further into the shadows, back into the jungle shadows of five million years or so ago, to find a fork in evolution. One route away from those forebears led to us. The other, to the chimps.

There are 5.6 billion genetic “letters” or DNA molecules in the human genome, stitched together in 80,000 genes. More than 98 percent of the combinations found in us occur exactly as they do in African chimpanzees. Similarities crop up in our behavior as well. Chimps maim, mutilate, rape and slay other members of their own species on a regular basis.

Biology may not invariably be destiny, but it would be a brave pundit who swore it lacked all influence. .

Atavistic lust for battle surfaces in the most idealistic. However, it frequently goes unrecognized, especially after being coaxed into modern, “politically correct” formats. .

You may choose to do what you call good. But if you also feel compelled to fight for it, you will have to trek to that same old source within, to acquire combative wherewithal. Battle lust, per se, is undifferentiated. What makes the difference is which team(s) or tribe that you decide you’re on.

Personally, I never felt drawn much to compete on teams. Did a little football in high school. In college, I briefly joined the corps of American irregulars who were clubbed and jailed for protesting the Vietnam War. But, when it came to confrontation, I gradually realized that I preferred channeling my aggro tendencies into individualized risk sports. My favorite battles were those that occurred when I pitted myself against nature’s raw force.

Which led to a paradox. I found myself drafted onto an athletic team after I’d grown adept at a highly individualistic risk sport — surfing kayaks..

Kayak surfing, was, of course, invented by visionaries who built the first kayaks: Greenland Inuit (esquimaux) and Alaska’s Aleuts. With neolithic technology — shaping driftwood and bone by the light of sealoil lamps through the long winters — they built tough, light, flexible boat frames. They sheathed these kayaks with seal or walrus hides, covered themselves in waterproof jackets sewn from whale intestine, and paddled out to claim the frigid Arctic seas. The first Russian traders in the region were astonished to see the Aleuts easily scoot about amid tempests which made their own stiff square-riggers groan, and cheerily ride combers which twisted seams of the Rusky ships agape.

“They can move about the sea boldly and freely and take great pride in doing this,” one wrote. “They put to sea during the worst storms, and teach this to children as young as twelve years of age.”

California kayakers surfers paddle in their actual wake; not least because the Russian and Aleut base established furthest south to nurture trade in sea otter pelts, in the early 1800s, was at Fort Ross (“Rus”), a hundred miles north of San Francisco. About 130 years after the Aeuts paddled these coastal waters, California river paddlers stroked out into the surf in summers, looking for entertainment in months when whitewater river rapids ran low.

This rogue activity reached a new plateau of respectability in 1985, when the state’s first kayak surf contest was held.

I made that scene, and showed for the next five regional contests, as well. And so my name was scribbled on a short list by our coach, Matty Kinsella, as he drafted a team in 1988 to cross the pond and have it out with the Brits, Micks, Scots and Welsh — who had their own version of the sport. And so it came to pass that I found myself installed on a national team.

Still feeling mystified by this development, I had looked avidly out the porthole of an Aer Lingus 747 as it  descended on the rumpled green chessboard of the Emerald Isle. Each verdant square of that land below seemed demarcated by a wavering line of stacked stone fences. Outside Shannon Airport, I stood out on those rolling hills for the first time. And found an ancestral yen for the auld sod was woven deeper into my psyche than I had kenned. As I sniffed up my first snootful of humid air laced with peat smoke, every cell in my body chanted a message: “Laddybuck, ye’re home!”.

I strapped my Phoenix kayak atop a teensy rental car, and set out driving on the wrong side of the road. In west Ireland, most thoroughfares are narrow lanes, constricted by those encroaching fences of stacked rock. There’s no margin for steering errors, especially when a loaded lorry barrels toward you from the opposite direction, demanding the roadway’s center to ensure safety for his precious fenders.

Another hazard for the newcomer is that your eyes are continually dragged off the road by seductive panoramas, such as the gothic ruins of castle keeps. Castles, in Ireland, are as common as piles of whale crap on the sea floor. Many of the cruder towers were stacked by the Normans, who invaded Ireland in the late 12th Century. Sleeker battlements went up later under English hands, to use as bases during their re-re-colonization of Ireland in the 16th and 17th Centuries. And most castles today have been reduced to a melancholy ruin by the siege cannon of Malby or Cromwell, blasted apart to deny any refuge to rebel Irish.

However, some castle walls were just blackened and crumbled by fire, signifying that the rebel Irish had piled peat bricks against the structure and set it ablaze, smoking out Norman or English warlords in their turn. .

Country towns commonly lie adjacent to such towering relics. The hamlets are clusters of slate-roofed, two-story stone houses painted in pastels. From lower stories, ornate signs thrust jauntily into the street, proclaiming wares of shop and pub.

Mostly pubs. There’s like, one of them for every eight houses. All the pubs look  snug and inviting. Some, I would add, are especially famed for sporting a mix of lively conversation and impromptu music sessions known as, “the good craic!”. . . (pronounced, “crack”).

At Lahinch, a cluster of houses and pubs parted, and I finally located the sea. I parked my car to scout the swells coming in off the Atlantic, and was delighted to also find familiar faces. All of Team USA, and several members of the Irish team sat there on the bay seawall, studying the ocean. Swells were low that day, so they were also spending time getting to know one another.

We really didn’t know what to expect from the other teams. Thanks to the research by our American coach, Matty Kinsella, we did know more than a decade of earlier contests had occurred between Scots, Irish, Welsh and English teams. But the results, structure – and especially the culture or prevailing tenor of these wave-battles were unknown to us.

On my flight into Ireland, I began to worry about the combative mood that might prevail between the Irish and English. Would this approaching contest be just one more chance for them to carry on their ancestral conflict by another means? What would be the real depth of the “sporting” struggle that was I about to see? .

Americans tend to think of The Troubles — that poisonous, persistent, low-key war between Catholic Irish Republicans, Protestant Provincial Separatists, and occupying British Troops — as confined to Ulster, the six northern counties grouped around Belfast. We may even have a vague sense some sort of modern flashpoint was reached in 1968, when Catholics marched through the streets of Londonderry, demanding parity with the Protestants in housing, jobs and the vote. They were set upon by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Escalating violence brought about the revival of the IRA and a simultaneous deployment of British troops. That attained a climax on “Bloody Sunday,” January 30, 1972, when edgy British soldiers gunned down seven teenage boys and six adult men during an Irish march. .

Landscapes are illumined by history, once it is known. And in the light of history, Ireland gleams with a varnish of tears and blood. Gazing back through the past millenia, it would be hard to find an acre or a decade unbedewed.

As invasions go, the influx of Strongbow’s Normans in 1170 wasn’t so bad. The Normans swiftly adopted Irish culture. Sons and daughters named Fitzroy, Fitzhugh, Fitzmaurice, Fitzpatrick and so forth soon wove strands into the tapestry of aboriginal Celts on the auld sod. .

The subjugation of Ireland as a vassal fiefdom took place 400 years later, during the Elizabethan era, as Sir John Perrot, the first strong colonial warlord, sought to crush opposition, extract taxes, and hew Irish into Elizabeth’s Navy. Also, it was thought smart to replace recalcitrant Irish with subjects more amenable to the crown. Scots Presbyterians were shipped in to displace the natives of Ulster in 1610 – an early stab at ethnic cleansing.

Lord Mountjoy put down native resistance to this scheme. Under Rory O’More and Phelim O’Neill, the Irish rose up to attack the colonists yet again. Then Oliver Cromwell brought his Roundheads, fire and the sword in 1649, avenging any English dead by repeated massacres of the Irish. Another war closed in an apparently decisive Irish defeat, by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, in 1690.

Rebellion erupted again from Ulster to Dublin, 1794-98. Rebel bodies were dumped into shallow mass graves. The following spring, a forest of green shafts sprang up — shoots from seed corn the dead Irish had carried in their coat pockets for combat rations.

Tiny insurrections and desperate acts of vengeance against oppressive British landlords continued through the Great Famine, 1845-1850, when two million Irish lives were lost to starvation, typhus and cholera. An added factor was the genocidal decision by British authorities  to continue to send to England the wheat, oats and barley produced on the best Irish farmland. Meanwhile, Irish underlings desperately tried to live on potatoes grown in patches in odd corners of the stone fences – a harvest that failed, year after year, due to blight.

Against such a backdrop, it’s not surprising there was an Easter Uprising in 1916, promptly followed by the Tan War of 1920, when auxiliary British troops called the Black-and-Tans (due to colors of their mismatched, impromptu uniforms) engaged in vicious, pitched battles with the IRA throughout the country. A pattern of political assassinations and reprisals ricocheted through battered counties for the next decade. It was the era of Michael Collins and “Dev” De Valera.

The eruption of Bloody Sunday seems just another russet bud, unfurling. But the Irish are noted, not only for stubborn combativeness, but – oddly enough – also for great warmth and conviviality.

At Lahinch, especially in Brewster’s Pub, we Yanks grew acquainted with members of the Irish kayak surfing team. I felt a bit shocked to discover that none of them were red-haired poets, anchorite monks, rambunctious sots, bomb-tossing IRA cadres, or clog-dancing colleens. They were schoolteachers, electricians, computer specialists and a soldier for the Irish Republic.

Similarly, the Irish seemed astonished our troop of California surfers did not include tanned, blonde studs wearing sunglasses, flowered shirts and sandals – or buxom bikini babes. We were a bunch of average, non-flashy, young Americans from all walks of life who had gotten reasonably good at an ancient sport.
Interesting, isn’t it, how much human thought leans upon stereotypes.

Still, my supposition that all might not be hearts and flowers between the British and Irish teams was borne out. That animus erupted, at first, in pranks. A pool table’s eight ball was hidden in a pint of stout, where it would roll down and smack against a British drinker’s teeth as he tilted his glass. The young Irish surfer who had put it there — Aidan — was grabbed by Brits and “pantsed,” stripped to his undershorts, straightaway on the dance floor at Brewsters.

Escalation seemed inevitable. Brits boasted of the way an Irish prank had backfired the previous year. An Irishman had coaxed the British into a conga dance line, then led them, dancing, into the men’s restroom. The mischievous Mick grabbed a firehose off the wall and soaked down the entire British team. But as that hoser turned to flee his retribution, he yanked the knob right off the door. He was then forced to swallow copious gouts of his own medicine.

I warily watched out for such imbroglios, wondering if or how I’d react if one erupted.

Meanwhile our international kayak surfing contest began. Low waves initially gave European teams an advantage. Their surf craft seemed decidedly odd: long, high-volume river slalom boats, with special control vanes and fins glassed onto the surface. They did boast superior hull speed. They could catch and ride almost any riffle, then stand on their bows in the final shorebreak to perform pirouettes and forward loops that earned high marks in Euro-style judging

In contrast, our low-volume, hard-railed American kayaks needed to be riding tall and steep (California-style) waves to turn in a credible performance. We bogged down when waves were this small.
Another depressing development lay in finding out the Euros thought the scope of our fight should extend beyond actual surf heats. Struggles for advantage continued into rule-making and judging. As we observed blatant favoritism bloom and flower, members of the U.S. team were aghast. Our lobbying for even-handedness was taken as naivety, a sign of weakness.

Hence, our asses got handed to us during early days of the contest. Our hosts, the Irish, sought to cheer us up with a jaunt in the countryside. They desired to show us a rural pub with “the good craic.” And so a caravan of tiny rental cars wound through the unlit Irish night, and eventually debarked at a rather remote, rural pub.

Clearly, this tavern hadn’t been visited often – perhaps never – by any foreigner. As our crew of Americans sauntered in, bug-eyed Irish locals reacted as if the Martians had landed.

But we stayed low key, acquired our own “dirty old pints” of draft Guinness stout, and sat to tap our toes to traditional tunes. These were jolly, swooping reels played on the tin whistle, fiddle, squeeze box, guitar and flat drum (bodhran). During lulls in the music, people rose from the audience to declaim a poem or belt out a ballad. All kibitzers were shushed. Each performer got heard. This was the grand and lovely craic. A grand dame sang a bittersweet tune about a captain who falls in love with a cabin boy. Then she strolled over to our table, and announced that we visitors ought to go on stage to make our contribution.<.

I gulped, nodded and went up to mumble through a John Prine tune. . . then chased that with a manic Lord Buckley monologue. Other members of Team USA offered their bits. Afterwards, the grand dame saw fit to reward us: “Ye’re good company!” .

Headlights tunneled through the wet night, leading us back to our lodgings. It struck me as we passed their digs, that not a single person from the British team had come along. I asked one of Irish whether Brits had been invited. A brief grunt was my only reply. .

As I mentally thumbed through my stocki Irish lore and history, I located a translation.

The good craic is regarded as more than mere entertainment. It’s the “harp-beat” of society, pumping the blood of cultural identity. Craic ventilates all wounds, promotes social bonds among the citizenry, connection with ancestors gone. It generates jollity in a snug pub during Ireland’s parade of cold, misty days.

Centuries ago, the invading English astutely perceived bardic tradition as a mainstay of the culture. They attacked it viciously. Queen Elizabeth’s warlord, Sir John Perrot, outlawed bards and rhymers on the grounds that their ditties stirred up defiance, inspiring Irish kerns and gallowglasses to rebellion. An even sterner edict was handed down in 1579. “Harpers, bards, rhymers and loose and idle people having no master are to be now executed by martial law.” .

Still, yet, through all the centuries of persecution, Irish music somehow found paths to survival, and it thrives in the present day.

Mindful of that history, the Irish may allow Brits to enjoy pubs along the main drags. Buses can unload tourists of any stripe at such joints. But the Irish team would no more have thought of bringing a limey into venerable craic halls in rural villages than a Brit, in turn, would consider inviting some Mick into the Tower of London to juggle the English crown jewels. After I had asked our principal guide why no English had been invited along on our soiree, and he grunted his response, I noted that his face took on a sour look as he gazed out the car windscreen, into the onrushing darkness.

Next day, at Doughmore beach, our surf competition continued. And on this day, third of the contest, God created waves — swells big enough to break before they actually hit the beach. On ’em, we could shred turns in our short, sharp American boats. Points began to roll in for Team USA. Which created no little consternation on the judge’s stand. A sense that advantage might veer within our grasp made our whole team buckle down to the task of beating our enemies — among  whom I even began to include our hosts. I’d a bellyful of watching biased judging and partisan wrangling. If our team displayed unarguable superiority in the surf, so much so that even the most unfair judges from other teams had to grouchily award us points, that would be the best revenge.

Smoldering anger led my emotions; a fierce urge to dominate others motivated my actions; determination to win infused my will. I was growing prepared to fight.  Yet, fairly promptly, a reactive switch clicked in my head. I found myself distrusting these feelings. I struggled to stand outside them mentally, to distance myself from them, to objectify and analyze them. This distrust stemmed from my belief that a militarized mind had been my father’s worst  addiction, casting a shadow over my entire childhood.

My dad had been a smart and ambitious man, struggling to succeed while our nation was mired in the Great Depression. He only came into his own after he joined the Army. His first military gig, jaunting around with the pre-mechanized cavalry, had been a lark. But after he joined the engineers and advanced to Lieutenant, he stumbled across a darker niche of power. He swiftly gained fame as a martinet, a bear for order and discipline.  So much so, that officers reputed as insubordinate were put under him for a bit of shaping up. This, I think, was his life’s true glory period. Amid exigencies of wartime, with full approval of his superiors, he could crush and humiliate men of lesser fiber. It was all accomplished under the shining aegis of patriotism.

After the war, he moved to South Florida, where he became a general contractor. But his construction business faltered. That was an odd development. Being a home-builder near Miami during that era should have been like pushing a wheelbarrow under a golden waterfall. Uncertain, perhaps, why his pockets stayed empty, he turned back to an earlier type of success. He took military command of his wife and kids. He set about shaping us into a platoon that would jump when he said boo. We were conscripts, forced to submit to abuse while fulfilling every order. It’s the same method a boot camp drill sergeant uses to format a random mob of men into a tight squad.

And that’s why, out at Doughmore beach, when I felt that hard, sharp-edged, metallic mind beginning to grind away inside of me, I sought to evade it. I did not, at first, succeed at doing so. Both offshore and on, teams competed in ultra-nationalistic fashion. We sketched giant logos of our countries in the level beach sand. Each sketch was fashioned larger than the next. Bonus points were won for erasing someone else’s work with your own.

“Unenlightened people show a karmic illness. They consider whatever they attach themselves to as having a self. Form a group, and they consider it to have a self. Bind themselves to a nation, and they believe the nation has a self,” wrote Yasutani Roshi, in 1967. (That opinion was well-researched, since this Zen master himself had generated propaganda for the Japanese empire during World War II.)

On the beach in Ireland, we cheered madly for our teammates to spank the neoprene off our rivals.  Arguments over points and rules erupted in the judge’s area. I got involved, and veered dangerously close to punching the smirk off the mug of a particularly smug coach..

While I glared at him, revelation suddenly dropped on me like a hod of bricks. It was not only Micks and Brits with their tradition of granting sway to aggressive urges which was of concern. I needed to get the chimp off my own shoulder.

I took a stroll on the beach to cool down, and acquire a freshened perspective. As I did, the clouds parted and the sun shone. This may not sound like a big deal, but in many parts of Ireland, rain falls 250 days per year. However, total annual precipitation is just 50 inches. Translation: You may not get as damp as you fear; but you’ll be genuinely ecstatic to see the sun.

Whenever sunbeams hit Ireland, rounded hillocks take on a glow so green and gold, so ripe, rich and fulfilling, it makes some deep vegetative root of the psyche sigh with pleasure. But our bringer of miracles was not yet done. Next, a troupe of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins swam into Doughmore Bay and began to surf with us during the contest. Party mammals that they were, they soon grasped the name of our game was plying hydraulics for fun. Their dorsal fins began cutting all around our boats on the wave faces. Round, dark eyes glanced up at us as they cruised alongside.

Christine Calvery, a distaff rep on Team USA, described it this way: “When I was out in my boat and they were surfing with us, I saw darting black shadows all around me, and bubbles trailing behind as they went below. It was great to be close to creatures who know how to enjoy the sea. It was like they were teaching us to be playful.”

Onshore, an evolution occurred. After the dolphins showed up, everyone began cheering with a fresh porpoise. (Sorry.) A half-dozen dolphins at once arced their powerful bodies in a wave’s glassy wall, cutting to this side and that. Some judges may actually have begun scoring them. In any event, the importance of team standings faded into background buzz as everyone began to grin and yelp in delight at the day’s enchantment.

A glow still surrounded me as I drove back toward my lodging. Then I came upon a memorial which I’d passed for several days in a row. This time, the spot hit me with greater emotional impact. A bronze plaque set in a stone wall bore the image of an angry man in a long coat, brandishing a revolver. The text below said that a band of Irish patriots had held their ground on this spot, battling against “forces of English oppression,” in 1926. I drove thoughtfully onward.

The next morning, our competition had a bye day. The Welsh came over to the American cottages to have a go at us. Their coach, Alan Page, said good morning, then whacked me across the forehead with a tin bar tray. The Welsh had a special trick with these. Gripping one by its rim, they could bash a victim with the tray center right on the front of the skull. It made a loud noise, produced a flash of light in the brain, and hurt the head not a whit. However, it also usually dented the tray beyond repair.

“Wherever we go, barmaids hide trays from us. But we talked them into selling us a few,” Page gloated. “The night of the big party, we’ll be able to attack!”

Another hit they proffered came from a bottle of poteen. This clear (but vicious and highly illegal) Irish moonshine trickles down your gullet like liquid flame, then suddenly rebounds and bolts like lightning up to the brain. Liberated in your cranium, it produces a luminous burst, not unlike getting walloped on the forehead with a tin tray. The five Welsh, plus the one Irishman accompanying them, had hit their bottle of poteen all night. It’s a tribute to the stuff’s potency that they had barely drawn the liter down to the halfway mark. .

After we succeeded in reducing the  by another centimeter, their plan to take us hiking on The Burren began to acquire charm.

The Burren is a bulging plateau of limestone, with miniscule canyons worn into the rock by erosion. Subarctic plants sprout in niches on the surface; temperate vegetation seeks shelter down in the narrow cracks. Amid the spring bloom, The Burren is a botanist’s fantasy. In dry autumns, this area resembles giant gray globes of stony brain tissue mulling green thoughts.

As we wound north through County Clare, heading for The Burren, a member of our expedition had a few green thoughts of his own. The Irishman turned pale, then fell unconscious. We roused him long enough to have him point out a turn in Lisdoonvarna as the right way, the wrong way, then the right way once more. This forced a series of improbable U-turns on the narrow lanes. Drained by his exertion, our Virgil flopped back on his seat and promptly passed out.

We found The Burren anyhow. Our first attempt to climb up the soaring, gray-green mound was defeated by a network of tiny erosion gullies so deep, random and intricate that ankle-busting seemed certain. We retreated, and tried a route leading up from the Black Head lighthouse, where the brow of the hill was worn a bit more smooth.

Once we had ascended several hundred yards above the wrinkled silver foil of the sea, the giant mound of rock beneath our feet began to speak. We crossed the long swath of the Green Road, a winding ribbon of cleared land that writhes over the desolate Burren. It could have had Sam Beckett as chief engineer: it starts nowhere, goes nowhere, and is used for nothing. It simply was a make-work project in the 1800’s, a way of making starving people perform some sort of task before they could receive their dole of bread.

Now, the surreal route simply makes despair of a bygone era visible. Large flat rocks, upended, form tall curbs on each side of the Green Road. This line of blank tombstones writhes by the windswept highway, then vanishes into infinity.

The next masonry project we found was a job from two millenia ago. “Cathair dun Irghus,” our guide called the Celtic ring-fort which loomed on a crest. Open air gradually revived him from his stupor. “That means the ‘Fort of Irghus,'” he said. “Don’t know who he bloody was. Some chieftain of the old days. These forts were used from 200 B.C. until medieval times. The Burren has hundreds of ’em.”

This fort was a circle of stacked rock, perhaps 300 feet in diameter. Just as at Peru’s old Inca stronghold, Machu Picchu, each piece of stone was carefully fitted to the next, creating a walkway below the rim of the outermost rampart. It was easy to visualize some hardy warrior, boarspear in hand, stalking here while a North Atlantic gale streamed his long hair and beard back over a rough brown cloak.

“Barren as it is,” our guide said, “this was the first place settled in Ireland. There were impenetrable forests and bogs almost everywhere else. And y’know, the free people were forced to seek shelter back up here after Cromwell invaded. There was nowhere else. The watchword at the time was, ‘You can go to Hell, or you can go to Connacht.'”

The merriest sight the Emerald Isle offered me was the comfort of Irish pubs. Next to them, an American bar is a cold and lonely place. The dreariest sites I saw were right up here on The Burren: tiny huts made of stacked rock, with smokestained rock slabs laid across to make a leaky roof. These hovels were the last refuge for those fleeing Cromwell’s wrath. Huddled next to a peat fire, their mouths stained green from munching herbs for survival, wretched refugees passed the icy seasons until the Roundheads were gone and it was safe to descend. At this moment, I finally grasped how deeply and thoroughly the Brits could be hated for the long, long train of misery inflicted on this island.

Our guide put his hand on the roof of a wretched cot. “I should come back, try to sleep in one of these some time,” he muttered. “What dreams would you have? It’s a desolate, desolate place. Maybe, a spiritual place, too.” .

We descended from The Burren around mid-afternoon to find that results of the 1988 Home International competition had been decided. Different countries could boast winning particular divisions. Team USA had won the surf kayak part. Ireland took the womens’ wave ski; Wales had the junior kayak division. But the combined scores from all divisions gave the Brits the best overall total.

Wind that had whistled past our ears up on limestone bluffs of the Burren had signaled a sea-change. As if goaded to fury by our paddle-slaps, the North Atlantic reared up and hissed foam across packed sand of Irish beaches. Sheets of air moaned over the seawall at Lahinch, building toward a full-throated howl. It was a remarkably inauspicious set of circumstances for launching the contest’s final phase, known as the European Championship. In this, surfers would compete against each other as individuals, not as team members.

Two emerging favorites in the last heats were Harry Babcock of England, and Eric Hanscom of the USA. Babcock boasted the current title. Tall, broad, and imbued with exuberant ferocity, he seemed a medieval throwback, someone who had popped out of the Bayeux Tapestry and come to life. Babcock would’ve looked perfect in a hauberk and helm at the battle of Hastings, swinging a broadsword.

Our cerebral Hanscom, by contrast, more resembled a lean and cool fighter pilot from WWII, tapping a cigarette on his thumbnail as he shows his mechanic how to stick up that last decal which proves he’s an ace.

So, it was our Apollonian Hanscom vs. the Dionysian Babcock on the unlevel playing field of the North Atlantic. I’d have to say, conditions seemed to favor Babcock more. Waves had become shaggy twelve-footers — the same sort of stuff Aidan Doyle and I had fought during our outing at Lahinch the day before. .

On these big dogs, Babcock would find plenty of room to turn his long boat before they walled and pitched. And he’d be able to blast back to the outside of the break easily, bending his giant strength upon the paddle shaft.

Still, Hanscom was afire with purpose. A former boardsurfer who’d switched to kayaks after a depressing loss (“Shit, I got second in the California state championships, and life went downhill for me then.”), Eric saw kayaks as a new venue, one where he could triumph. It was a thrill to watch him push a kayak to perform with the precision of a surfer’s shortboard.

Amid heaving seas, blasting winds and gloomy skies, the day went absolutely frigid. As he rested between  rounds, Hanscom sat in my tiny rental car. I tried to get its anemic heater to wheeze out more BTU’s. He stuffed Cadbury’s chocolates into his mouth, and calculated his odds. Matty pushed his bearded visage into the window on Eric’s side. .

“You got ahead by one point in your heat. You went through! So it’s Discombe from Britain, Eoghan Pearsons from Ireland, Babcock and you in the finals. It’ll start soon. Eat! Eat! And drink, too. You want an injection?” .

Eric smiled wanly. He slid another hunk of candy into his mouth and gulped it down with water. “Looks tough,” he said. “Babcock’s only lost once in this contest. Pearsons pulls great enders, and Discombe’s good at snaking the critical part of the wave. But I can do roundhouse cutbacks, and they can’t. That’s my edge.” .

Eric left the car and headed for his boat. Soon, sharp lines of his Perception Sabre cut through the chaotic storm seas. Amazingly, he followed his game plan, even after one huge swell snatched him up and hurled him into the seawall. Bruised and battered, he pushed himself back out through the breakers and scored his third big ride of the heat.

It became apparent Hanscomb would win. He was letting every last scrap of his talent and drive emerge, as he displayed consummate mastery on cutbacks. He would poise his  speeding boat just below the lip of a pitching wave, then use its curling foam to knock the bow around through a fast, 180-degree course change, over and over. Yet by the heat’s end, he looked physically beaten as he paddled up to a patch of sand that lay exposed by the sea wall, in between the larger wave sets. Matty stripped to his briefs and ran into the cold water to help Eric land.

Babcock was already on shore — spare energy always seemed to course through that massive frame. Together they caught Eric’s boat. He fell out of it and rolled, kneeling on the sand, limp with fatigue. Matty helped him to high ground before the next high waves bashed into the rocks. He held Eric up, hugged him, and told him he’d done fine. Harry Babcock grinned as he approached from the rear. Then he yanked Matty’s underwear all the way down to his ankles, putting his plump buns on display to all the spectators from town.

Our final, triumphal bash for all contestants was held at Brewster’s. This was a theme pub right on the Lahinch waterfront. Named after an American bar, it featured a big screen video where old California surf movies, such as “Big Wednesday,” showed in constant rotation. We fortified ourselves with the customary pints of Guiness, then thrashed our way through the awards ceremony. There were honest cheers — especially for Eric’s heroic victory — yet also some gnashing of teeth.

The Welsh launched a swashbuckling assault on the trophy table, bashing tin bar trays against the foreheads of all comers. A special teddy bear consolation prize was given the English coach, as he’d pitched the best temper tantrum at the judge’s stand. But once all ribbons, plaques and trophies were distributed, matters having to do with victory or loss swiftly faded into the background.

Kayakers of all nationalities mingled on Brewster’s dance floor. There were impromptu conga dance lines, an Irish woman dancing with her dog, clog dances to a disco beat, dances done while sitting down on the floor. Shouts and laughter ricocheted around the room like light from a mirrored ball.

I’d expected there would be a residue of bitterness, that might stem from fights over judging, or the historic antagonism which had been the contest’s subtext. Yet something else displaced those things. I was a beat behind in my awareness of what that might be.

Noise and fatigue finally forced me off the dance floor and out into the pub stairwell, to take a breather. I found one of the Brits already out there, taking his own break from the dance floor, letting his sweat cool. I recognized him: Babcock, the lad with the physique and fire of a medieval warrior. It was a bit of a let-down to find out that he worked as a functionary in a London brokerage. As we chatted, he shared his doubts about the equities of Thatcher’s England.

“I spend my life getting other people money. Numbskulls wind up with thousands and thousands of pounds. And there you are with a degree you’ve slaved to get just so you can serve them, while you make bloody nothing!

“That’s why I’ve got to find a place to let it rip. That’s why surfing’s so important to me. When you’re on a wave, you can completely let loose, and not think of anything else. Surfing itself is a lot like traveling to Ireland. Combine surfing and Ireland, and you’ve got something! Over here, you can really let your hair down. We English are so bloody stiff. An Englishman is so reserved, anything vibrant makes him feel unsettled. Threatened, somehow.”

Tongue loosened by pints and the party’s power, Babcock vented on. “I really like the Irish,” he confessed. “Sometimes, if they’re in a group and you walk by as a Brit, they make you feel damned odd. But once the craic gets rolling, you are welcome to join. You do song after song with them, it’s an incredibly warm and human experience. Sort of thing you can’t find anyplace else in the world. You must love them, as a people, for making their land a home for that. . .”

I gazed at him, sympathetically. Perhaps he hadn’t grasped all the history, didn’t know that the English had spent centuries trying to rub the good craic out of existence. Likely, he had no clue the English team had been deliberately excluded from our foray to that rural pub, as well as our expedition to The Burren. Maybe knowing that wouldn’t have made a difference. Our risk sport, and the joy of its adherents, had already taken him a down a path leading away from ancient enmities. As I looked at Babcock, I thought, here’s one Maggie will never get to shoot at an Irishman. And none of these Irish, who’ve shared the sea and the pubs with him, shall ever be able to raise a hand against him.

Eventually, I left Babcock and got outside. Wind shrieking off the sea nearly tore the pub’s outer door from my grasp, and even tried to yank it off its hinges as I opened it. The gale plastered clothes against my body as if I’d been shrink-wrapped. As I stumbled along, I had to lean well forward into the spray that bounded over the seawall and blasted the streets of Lahinch. I felt if spread my arms, I could rise up on these gusts like a seagull.

As I gazed out on the dark and turbulent Atlantic, my thoughts began to coalesce. Like many other high-risk sports, surfing in heavy swells must bear some resemblance to combat. There’s the hiss of incoming rounds and the thunder of explosions. You teeter on a thin line between getting hammered or achieving evasion — and sometimes, even victory. It’s most like it, perhaps, because the sea can absorb every iota of your physical strength, each aggressive impulse, then invite you to reveal a little more.

Combat compels release of aggressive emotions that run as deep as tribalism, or deeper. . .  eventually attaining the sort of savagery which unites a posse of chimps, scampering through the Tai Forest of West Africa, seeking a way to tear a red colobus monkey from the trees so they can devour its flesh.

However, a risk sport — and especially competition in a risk sport — summons this energy, only to transform it. One gains catharsis in emerging from full release of ultimate aggression, only to make the charming discovery that you’ve not hurt anyone else, or even yourself.

Matty Kinsella, the third order Franciscan monk who was our team coach, was well out in front of me on this. Before we had even left the U.S., in fact., he had told me, “I’d like to see activities like surf kayaking replace sports like boxing, that pit the primal nature of men against each other.

“Humans, males in particular, seem to need intensity. But here in this crowded, modern world, we should find adventures for our bodies other than wreaking violence. Surfing contests are a great alternative. It provides an outlet, without letting aggression devolve into that tribal identification and blind rage which leads to war.”

Women tend to loathe football — at least, those who don’t play on female rugby teams themselves — without realizing the vital role it plays in sublimating, then dissipating, aggressive social urges. The true goal of the game is not found in the score, or an ostensible victory. Its ultimate achievement is the camaraderie, demonstrated when players on opposing sides pat each other after a play is whistled dead, hug or shake hands following a game.

That’s when demons of war, and elements of the military mind become sublimated. There’s a chance to grasp the light of a higher nature, a more benign style of living.

Standing out by the Lahinch seawall, I looked back at Brewster’s. Light, laughter and music spilled out from the pub windows. I noted how soon it got swallowed up by the stormy night. All the noise and warmth a hundred rowdy paddlers could make was just a hiccup between storms, a gasp between the stars. A ribbon of light, amid history’s dark cascade.

Each other, I thought. That’s all we’ve got.

Archives: Foraging

Paul McHugh comments:

I never met the fabled Hal Silverman in person. He was editor of “California Living”— one of three (count ‘em, three!) magazines that ran in the Sunday edition of the combined San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner in the late 1970s. Though we had strictly  professional contact, via mail and phone, let me just say, that guy Hal was one hell of a sugar daddy to a whole generation of Northern California writers. Through the Sunday Examiner/Chronicle, with a readership of more than a million, he bestowed upon us a huge  distribution of our stories, as well as a decent check for doing our best. Here’s one of my favorites from the “California Living” era.

The Worth of a Pineapple

Drip. Drop. It took a moment for me to realize – that muffled, offbeat percussion I heard came from rain hitting my sleeping bag. But I drowsed back into sleep, hoping that by waking up differently, I might arrive in a different world. One where it might not be raining. That ploy didn’t work. So I writhed out of the soggy, Army-Surplus, “down” (feather, really!) bag. I tossed the bag into the camper shell on the back of my truck.

Then, still yawning and stiff, by early morning’s wet, gray, light, I tottered down to the riverside.

The Eel River, choked with rain and snowmelt, looked cold and blue as steel. Powerful, twisting current ran deep and fast. Over on the opposite bank, some forty yards away, I could see a canoe pulled up, out of the water and under the trees. I knew a solitary resident of this place used it for crossing back and forth. Right now, he seemed “forth.”

No help for it. If I stood here any longer under the deluge of spring, I’d get soaked anyhow.

So I stripped, and tucked the roll of my clothes and boots in the dry shadow of a big, lichen-smeared boulder. Then I walked my naked body into the icy Eel. By leaning upstream as I waded, and planting the spread toes of my bare feet carefully on the slippery, rounded cobbles of the riverbed, I was able to cross many yards before it got so deep that I was forced to dive in and swim.

Upon reach the far shore, instead of shivering and aching with cold – as I’d anticipated – I found that my body steamed with exhilaration and warmth.

I scrambled up the riverbank, then bounded along a well-worn path that led to a friend’s cabin.

The door was unlocked, so after knocking on it, I barged on through. Tayhanay was still lounging in bed. Bare and streaming river water, I stood before him. He cocked one sleepy eye up at me.

“You could have yelled,” he said, sleepy and amused. “I would have gotten up, paddled the canoe over, and gotten you.”

I shrugged. “Didn’t seem right, to do a lot of yelling out here.”

He smiled, arose, stoked the fire, dressed, put a kettle on.

After drinking hot tea, we shuttled the canoe across the river, collected my clothes and equipment, and returned. I sat by his wood stove and soaked up warmth as Tayhanay cooked breakfast.

“Want some?” he offered. “There’s plenty.”

“Thanks, but no. I should tell you the reason I’m here. For the next four days, my plan is to eat nothing at all – except for the things that I can forage.”

He looked at me thoughtfully. “So. You know all about foraging, eh?”

“Nope!” I admitted. “Just miner’s lettuce. But I have some manuals. And if I don’t eat anything but forage items, that should give me plenty of incentive. Especially after a day or two.”

He seemed amused, unsurprised. Just as he had when I’d showed up wet and naked at his door. Call him, Mr. Imperturbable. He probably saw me as Mr. Improbable.

“More tea?”

“No. I’ve announced the program to you, so that means I’ve started. It’ll be strict observance. Just like the discipline of Cistercian monks.”

“It’s pennyroyal,” he explained, with perhaps a surfeit of patience. “From here.” With a hand sweep, he gestured toward the forested curves of the Northern California hills that ranged outside the cabin windows.

“Ah,” I said, and held out my cup.

After visiting for a bit, we went walking through the brush and wild meadows.

“Brodeias,” Tayhanay said, indicating a small purple flower nodding atop a short stem. “Flower, stem and bulb, all edible. Miwoks used it as a dietary staple. You may wish to consider the native attitude, and not pick too many from the same place. Treat plants with gratitude and respect, so they can prosper. Then they will see to it that you prosper, too. That’s the way life was lived, back then.”

As I plucked a brodeia bloom and thoughtfully chewed it, my mouth filled first with the cool moisture of raindrops, then the delicate savor of the petals. The flavor was earthy, herbal and light, all at the same time. During the next four days, no matter what else I found to nibble upon, these flowers would remain my favorites.

That morning in the meadows, Tayhanay showed me wild clover, edible grass roots and the green spikes of storksbill. Then, along the gulches where ephemeral creeks writhed down the hills, the flat wrinkled stars of soaproot.

Edible and Useful Plants of California. Charlotte Clark.

My foraging manuals were, “Wild Edible Plants,” by Donald Kirk, and “Edible and Useful Plants of California,” by Charlotte Clark. They seemed attractive and well-organized books, but I was happy having a friend who lived out here who could provide a personal introduction to the entities that Frank Zappa calls, “our green and yellow friends.”

That afternoon, walking alone and toting my collection sacks, I made my way along a high ridge. I knelt to dig up the tiny bulbs of brodeias with a sheath knife. Once stripped of their rough and hairy outer jacket, the bulbs were revealed as pale, shiny pearls that crunched, sweet and juicy, between my teeth.

As I ascended, meadows changed to chaparral, which grew steadily more dense and tangled.

Chamise, ceanothus with long flowering branches, red-barked Manzanita and scrub oak all competed for survival on the steep, poor soil, their interlaced branches forming a barrier nearly impermeable to progress. I wound up on my hands and knees, crawling along animal trails.

Delicate doe tracks printed the dusty earth. I found dry, broken rolls of coyote and bobcat scat. No plants looked very edible. I began to question the wisdom of expending energy on the climb. As a forager, it was probably smarter to stick around the lush meadows, where I knew I could find food.

Then, as I crawled around a bend in the trail, the shape of a bizarre, corrugated fungus caught my eye. It looked positively venomous, but it reminded me of a photo I’d seen in the Clark book. I pulled it out, found the page, and made my first solo identification: the fungus was a morel mushroom – Morchella esculens. Not just edible, it was supposed to be a culinary delicacy!

Clark wrote that morels could only grow where there was lots of fertile humus. I looked at the chaparral I’d been struggling through with fresh respect. Alchemizing sunshine into dark soil over decades, these tough plants had managed to lay down a layer of organic molecules rich enough to produce this sort of food. I left a few of the larger morels growing, to spore out and propagate their kind. The rest, I collected.

Near the summit of the ridge, I came across another beautiful meadow, where someone had once leveled a circle for a tipi. I saw a crude fence of stakes pounded into the ground around an overgrown garden and a springbox. Here, I gathered the young leaves of plantains (another positive identification from the books).

A light rain, almost a mist, began to fall, shrouding the river canyon from view.

But to my north, I could see a tall grove of Douglas firs. I hiked to these evergreens, and among them found a magic glen, where game trails laced through thick hummocks of bracken fern. As the tall firs swished and creaked high overhead, I picked soft “fiddleheads” from the tips of young ferns. I admired their symmetrical spirals, like chlorophyllic watchsprings. Each one looked about ready to twang out into a verdant frond.

By the time I finally came off the ridge, air in the lower canyon had grown blue and thick with dusk. The river chanted softly in my ears as I strolled up the footpath to my friend’s cabin. Sitting by his woodstove, I spread out my haul.

Tayhanay had already been feasting on coffee, panbread and vegetable stew. I noted that my nose had grown keenly appreciative of the aromas of cooking food, just one day into my planned forage-fast. He held up a dripping ladle of hot stew, and invited me to have some.

“Now, y’know,” he said – like an avuncular Mephisopheles – “anyone living out here in the old days would’ve had a garden, and a supply of stored grains and seeds. You wouldn’t be breaking your deal if you had a bowl of this.”

His eyes crinkled with glee as he blended the roles of tempter and host. This apparition, I can only describe as Coyote.

My gut growled a vote to take a bowl of stew and enjoy it. However, I turned it down. I still had to grant Coyote’s point – I did not need to be Puritanical, or strict to the point of self-righteousness. I borrowed a splash of mustard oil to saute’ the cog-shaped slices I sawed with my knife out of the morel mushrooms. As a hedge against mis-identification, I ate a small chunk and waited 30 minutes. Then a larger piece, and waited an hour. I was not bothered by so much as the twinge of a cramp, so I then happily munched my way through a panful. Urp!!

But I was less charmed by the steamed fiddleheads and plantains; both were strong and bitter. Their taste brought to mind the high mineral and vitamin content of wild plants. . . as well as the datum that bracken is supposed to be toxic and carcinogenic if consumed in quantity. They’re not alone in this. Even apple seeds contain hydrogen cyanide. Tomatoes are kissin’-cousins to deady nightshade. My foraging books, emphasized that only when carefully identified, selectively harvested and properly prepared, did wild plants offer valuable nutrition.

Assessing my condition at dawn on the second day, I did feel somewhat fortified, even though breakfast was simply a re-heat of the previous night’s dinner.

“POW! POW! POW! POW!”

“What’s that?” I was startled by rapid gunfire.

“Just the dominant culture’s kneejerk response to wilderness,” Tayhanay said. “Idiots like to drive out of town to a spot across the river, and play with their guns. Sometimes I go over and scream at them. But I just don’t feel up to it today. Yet.”

“POW! POW! POW!. . .” The shooting trailed off, and stopped as abruptly and inexplicably as it had begun.

In meadows by the river, I dined on sunshine, sweet clover and soaproot. For the soaproot, I dug with my knife under the flat, crinkled stars of the leaves. While I did so, I thought about the so-called Digger Indians, a non-existent tribe that white settlers seemed to see everywhere. They accused these “Diggers” of indolence and sloth. But it takes a great deal of patience to extract a root. Perhaps whites would have been better impressed if the Indians harvested roots with hydraulic mining, the way the settlers took gold – and left behind denuded moonscapes and piles of sludge.

The soaproot was a bit hard to swallow as food. That name alone should have warned me. Supposedly, the Miwoks not only used it as a source of starch, but also as a soap, a treatment for dandruff, and would also mash up the whole plant and throw it into streams to stupefy fish. Following the manuals, I did peel the bulbs, and then boiled and drained them twice. My gorge still rose. With tears in my eyes, I did manage to choke down some of what I had cooked. Then, feeling fairly stupefied, I went to bed.

Trout swam away from me in my dreams.

On the third day, I found a new meadow, and browsed and storksbill. Though I’d gathered and eaten stuff almost continually during daylight hours, the actual mass of stuff I’d eaten was fairly tiny compared to what my body was used to consuming. And I saw clearly that I was expending much more energy to get my food. There’s a world of difference between hiking all over a hill, and pushing a cart down the aisle of a grocery store. To put the obvious bluntly: foraging makes you conscious of the value of food molecules in a whole new way.

I knew pounds were melting off my body. Some sensations felt characteristic of a fast. My body seemed to become more permeable to light and sound. The dull, omnipresent murmur of the river drifted steadily through me. A spectral power of the earth seemed to be rising up into me from the soil.

Bit by edible bit, I gradually became more expert. For example, the biggest storksbill spikes were far from the best. I found that the smaller ones had tiny buds of the sweetest flavor, and less woody fiber to chew.

Had a tribal elder been around to mention this, I wouldn’t have needed to spit out so many wads of soggy cellulose.

But the teachers who could have helped me gather the secrets that lay in plain sight among the groves, the grasses and the river pools had been decimated, nearly exterminated, a century ago. Even Tayhanay was just a smart, skinny old white guy, trying to insert himself one stage further back into the wild landscape than most modern people care to go.

I looked out at the rumpled patchwork of chaparral plant communities quilting the hillsides, and gazed at the distant sway of the dark firs. So many plant beings. Hundreds! All with their individual natures and potential uses, woven into a dense and deep, complex tapestry. I only nibbled upon its fringe. How much of the hoard of millennial wisdom had been been lost, and blindly destroyed.

Not far from the Eel River, the Hill Patwin tribe had once ranged around a “strong medicine” area that we now call Wilbur Hot Springs. Mabel McKay, one of the last of that tribe, had her talk recorded by an anthropologist. Her quotes were later used in an Environmental Impact Statement. That’s one cool thing about an EIS; the number of nuggets like that which you can find, buried in the heaps of bureaucratese.

“They had many trails for going-out and coming-in,” Mabel said of her Patwin people. “They’d go out on one trail and return on a different one, so they wouldn’t disturb the animals and the plants. That’s what they called destroying things, if you just tramped over them. You go that way, you go this way, and there’s no opening for the food to grow. That’s what happens today. People go this way and that way and every way. That’s why there’s no food. People destroy it. People-Destroying-Their-Own-Food, it’s called.”

I closed my eyes, and envisioned immense rents torn in the earth’s fabric. I closed my fingers around the small storksbill that I held in one hand. A needle, to sew a thread or two across one of those vast tears. How many sutures would it take to tug it fully closed? And did we have enough time to make the effort?

That’s the pathos of our ethos.

At length, I came calmly to the end of the fourth day of my forage-fast. As the sun dropped and shadows slowly thickened in the canyon, I used Tayhanay’s canoe to go across the river to my truck. I rooted around in the back, found the box that held a ripe pineapple, then ceremonially carried it back to the cabin.

I had planned for this moment. Before I had even left my hometown of Mendocino on this trip to the Eel, I had researched the amount of energy and effort expended by my culture to bring that particular pineapple to my neighborhood store.

This pineapple had been grown on the Wahiawa Plantation in Oahu, Hawaii. It was either from the first harvest or the first ratoon (second crop from the same plant). It had been twisted and broken from the stem by hand, by one of a line of agricultural workers following conveyor booms of a huge harvester/tractor as it was driven through the long rows of the plantation.

Bins packed right aboard this tractor were then driven by flatbed truck to the Dole packing plant in Honolulu, where the pineapples were dipped in a fungicide solution.

Then my pineapple was sorted, labled, sized and packed in a crate. The box was stacked, wrapped with others in a cardboard slipsheet called a Pulpak, and trundled via forklift into a steel shipping container supplied by the Matson Navigation Company.
At this point, my pineapple began to be refrigerated. The container was unplugged was grabbed by a crane and loaded onto a ship, the Maukai, and there it was promptly plugged in to another outlet on the deck. On voyage number 213, the Manukai sailed to Oakland, and docked at the Matson wharves.

A shorebased gantry crane seized the container holding my pineapple, raised it, plonked it down on the wharf, and a mobile crane called a straddle-carrier snatched it up and ran it to a storage zone where it was plugged in for another jolt of voltage.

Soon, a driver named George, who handles a GMC tractor-trailer rig for Sunset Produce, drove over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to pick up the container.

He delivered it to Giovanni, who opened the container and spread its contents out with his other wares at the San Francisco Commerical Market.

Denny and Jim, who make pick-ups for “The Corners of the Mouth,” our health-food store in Mendocino, arrived in a bulk deliver truck they nick-named The Blue Goose, scored some boxes of pineapple from Giovanni, loaded them up with their other purchases, then headed back home to Mendocino.

We Mendo locals just refer to that store, located in an old church building, as, “Corners.” That’s where I found an almost-perfectly-ripe pineapple to put in my truck and bring with me on my trip inland to the Eel River and Tayhanay’s riverside cabin.

And then, inside that cabin, I hefted that pineapple in the same right hand that on the previous day had held a little, peeled bit of storksbill. This weighty tropical fruit held perhaps a thousand times the edible bulk of that little piece of wild plant. The amount of time, effort, fuel and energy expended by my culture to bring me that fresh pineapple was staggering.

I pulled out my now-fairly-dull sheath knife, and carefully sawed the pineapple into long eighths, and offered Tayhanay a slice. Then I raised a slice to my own lips. I chewed my way into it, as warm, sweet, stinging juice ran abundantly over my chin.

Oh, yes. Price. The pineapple cost me eighty-nine cents.

Archives: Outdoor Business

Paul McHugh comments:
Nature has always been our teacher. This story, from 1985, reveals how outdoor adventurers Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard and others extracted lessons from their exploits in the wild that helped them achieve success in other realms. These visceral truths stand the test of time, and can apply to many different types of endeavor.

A Business Class in the School of Hard Rocks

The great gray face of Yosemite’s El Capitan dropped away for a sheer half-mile below the climber’s dangling feet.

It was 1967, the ninth day of the first attempted solo ascent of this soaring granite wall. Icy winds that had buffeted the man early in his climb had ebbed – to be replaced by other problems. Muscles aching from constantly repeated moves. Nerves that felt inflamed by the relentless need for focus. The hour was late, the light fading. And a crumbling crack that seemed his only possible route was bottoming out.

Sometimes at a crux like this, the tendency is to panic a bit and rush the thing. But the best way is to just go on being methodical. Precise and thorough.

The climber set a small, wired nut, attached a sling and tested it. Seemed good. He slowly added his weight. Then hope slid into sickened fascination as he saw the nut suddenly tear free and felt gravity pluck him from the vertical rock.

That “rurp,” that tiny piton placed below! Could it stop a fall . . . ? His plunge halted with a sharp jolt. OK. Time to drill and set an expansion bolt. Bolts might be a conscious violation of the new “clean-climbing” ethic he and others in his youthful Yosemite climbing group had forged, but he’d just demonstrated that one was necessary.

Up here, a slight miscalculation could prove fatal. Even so, waiting till one hit a total impasse to employ the security of a bolt was simply a matter of climbing with the proper style.

“The most important thing I got from climbing,” Royal Robbins says today, “was practice in discipline, practice in self-control. It’s a way of showing yourself that in this, as well as other areas of life, you can do it , through years of total concentration on something you’re really interested in.”

In the ’70s and ’80s, many American businessmen strove to grasp the theoretical underpinnings of Japanese economic success. Their search took them into explorations of Bushido , the traditional code of the Samurai, stressing self-discipline, bravery and simple living, and Buddhist concepts of poise and balance. They read books like Eugene Herrigel’s “Zen and the Art of Archery” and turned “The Book of Five Rings,” by 16th-century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, into a modern American best-seller.

But perhaps this bout of cross-cultural paradigm-envy, while enlightening, was not that necessary. Ignored and obscured in our rush toward urban culture and recreation, there has existed all along a distinct American ethos based on the code of the frontiersmen, our not-so-distant ancestors, who as individuals had to develop the inner grit to triumph in hand-to-hand combat with the elements, and who, as a new society, had to employ the virtues of simplicity, directness and cooperation in order to survive.

Other cultures have produced great adventurers and explorers, of course, but only in America has the settling of an untamed wilderness played a large and recent role in the formation of national character.

Today’s high-risk outdoor sportsmen are the re-discoverers of that frontier ethic, the natural heirs of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Zebulon Pike. They may have to crawl a little farther out on the same limb to achieve a comparable inner effect, but they have wound up grappling with the same wild manifestations of death, danger and fear of the unknown.

Unlike the Samurai, their opponents are not other humans but wind, rock, ice and rushing water. Their discoveries are not new forests to trap or fertile valleys to settle, but new dimensions of the secrets of fitting one’s character to the forces of nature so that one can briefly inscribe one’s intended trajectory on the face of it.

“Be sure you’re right,” Davy Crockett used to say, “then go ahead!” The simple wisdom behind this frontier motto resonates in the words of modern adventurers, some of whom have demonstrated the practical application of what they’ve learned in another American proving ground: the realm of business.

The morning of his 10th day on El Capitan, a weary Royal Robbins hauled himself over the top. A disdain for publicity meant that only his wife, Liz, and fellow climber Glen Denny were there to appreciate his achievement. In the photo below (shot by Denny), although Royal has his wife by his side and a cup of champagne in his hand, one can see the bewhiskered jaw is still clenched, the cheeks taut, his eyes still blazing from the energies summoned to cope with the ordeal.

“I’ve never seen a face so drawn and tired,” Liz remembers. “I also felt he really needed to be with people, and he normally wasn’t that way at all. To see that look, and realize what it must’ve been like for him out there – I’ll never forget it.”

Today, 17 years later, Royal bounds into the kitchen of his rambling Spanish-style home in the Central Valley. Perspiration streaks his stylish zippered sweats, but it’s clear that three sets of tennis after work have merely invigorated him.

At 50, the man Galen Rowell called “the most accomplished rock-climber in America” is remarkably trim, fit and vital. His eyes still have that gimlet stare, but the face is rounder, softer, more open and relaxed. The only evidence I can see of his climbing days is a lone carabiner used to hold up vines arching over the garage where he parks his vintage Hudson.

Artifacts of a more current pursuit are everywhere. His gray polypropalene sweats were designed for the Royal Robbins sportswear line, as were the soft canvas gaucho shirt and long cotton bush pants being worn around the house by his elderly father-in-law, Eric Burkner.

Burkner, a prominent retired Modesto businessman, admits he “didn’t think much of the situation” when his daughter took up with a youth whose only visible means of support was an 11mm perlon rope, but says, “He’s turned out to be quite a decent chap.”

And the mail-order outdoor-equipment enterprise Robbins began in the basement of Burkner’s paint store has turned into quite a decent business, supplying a coordinated line of Robbins sportswear (mostly designed by Liz), outdoor gear and more than 400 titles in sports and nature books to 1100 retailers throughout North America. The company is climbing from a gross last fiscal year of $4.5 million to more than $7 million in 1985, accelerating toward a goal of $25 million by 1990.

A high school dropout (“I didn’t want to let school stand in the way of my education”), Robbins credits his progress as an entrepreneur to lessons learned in his years on the rocks.

“I approach business the same way I approach climbing,” Robbins says. “I use what works in climbing.”

A principle he grasped early on, he says, is that “you never really know what you can do until you fall trying.”

“I used to go bouldering as a kid. We’d try to outdo each other on hard routes close to the ground. At a point on this one route, I figured I could go no higher, and fell . . . and it suddenly came as an insight that I wasn’t falling off, I was letting go! When I’d convinced myself I’d gone as far as I could, I was relaxing my fingers. And I decided right then that next time I’d keep going until gravity itself pulled me off!

“I started doing that, and increased my ability right away. In a phrase, what I’ve learned from climbing is tenacity of purpose. That’s more important than any skill or talent I’ve had, and it tends to make up for a lot. It tends to work toward success in anything you try.”

Not everything is transferrable, of course. Robbins was widely respected, and sometimes feared, as a fierce competitor back in his Yosemite climbing days. Unexpectedly, he’s discovering in business that this is a trait best modified.

“Business is much more cooperative than I used to think. My prejudice about it was almost a stereotype. I can look around at those doing a better job at it than I am, and it’s because they’ve got a broader attitude. It’s not exactly a sense that `there’s plenty for everyone,’ but it is an emphasis on cooperation insofar as you can extend it.”

Examples spring from his friendship with Yvon Chouinard, chief executive officer of Lost Arrow/Patagonia, and Doug Tompkins, owner and CEO of Esprit, the trendy activewear company that racked up more than $700 million in international sales last year. Like Robbins, Chouinard and Tompkins are graduates of the school of hard rocks. These days the three mountaineers find themselves sharing two new passions: whitewater kayaking and taking creative risks with their companies.

In Robbins’ case, the love of independence and risk-taking manifested in the way he resisted a recent – and attractive – buyout offer from North Face.

“We came within a hair of saying yes. North Face has worldwide sales of about $40 million; a merger would’ve given us the security for everything we wanted to do.

“But . . . ”

The gleam in Robbins’ eyes resembles one in the photo taken years back at the top of El Capitan, and what he says is strongly reminiscent of his philosophy on climbing, and the use of bolts: “It’s never been like us to do something just for security’s sake. That’s just a matter of style. A merger would have taken too much of the adventure out for us. So instead we’re going to our own bank, BankCal, for financing. They, and we, believe we can do it on our own.”

Top performers in sports may have some qualities in common, like decisiveness and self-reliance, but there is not just one pattern of character. Excellence is colored by the individual personality. Different combinations work. Kayaker Don Banducci, juxtaposed with Royal Robbins, illustrates this point perfectly.

“Some people are cerebral, some more passionate and intuitive,” Banducci says. Framed by curling brown hair, his triangular satyr’s face is pensive. “Not that one’s better. Cerebral ones can sit there scratching their heads when there’s absolutely no time for it. And sometimes the passionate one is going to be all munched up at the bottom of a rapid, while the thinker is going, `Whew! I’m glad I saw that hole coming!’ ”

He smiles. “Virtually everything I do is intuitive.”

Banducci is 36. Around his eyes are lines caused by years spent squinting into the sunlight sparkling off rushing water. Creases around his mouth, however, come from a sardonic grin that would perhaps be present no matter what he was doing. These days, his time is invested heavily in design, marketing and promotion for Yakima products, a sports-accessory company of which (at 22 percent) he’s also primary individual owner.

This business tends to keep him from a former favored pursuit: winning first place in the “Whitewater Rodeos” held by kayaking buffs on rivers throughout the West.

But, he says, “Watching our business grow is all the excitement and challenge I need right now.”

Whereas Robbins has only reluctantly moved toward promotional use of his outdoorsman’s image, Banducci admits he’s always gloried in the limelight. He grins when asked why he pursued fame on the whitewater rodeo circuit: “Adulation.”

But one thing makes the two alike: High-risk sports gave them both a chance to gaze down the barrel of a loaded cannon and grope within themselves for a response. In Banducci’s case, the barrel of the biggest gun was the Grand Canyon of British Columbia’s Stikine River, and the projectile was his own kayak.

“It scared me when I first saw it. Incredibly violent water, with tough hydraulics. And some of the rocks creating the big drops were awfully close to being exposed.”

He and four other top adventure-boaters were laying long-term plans for a first descent of the Stikine when producers of ABC’s American Sportsman series got wind of the scheme and asked permission to film.

“Fortunate!” Banducci says. “The more we saw of the river, the more we realized that their helicopter support was a very reasonable safety factor. That river was the most challenging thing I’ve ever faced. And the canyon! Sheer granite walls shooting up 2000 feet on both sides with just a crack of sky way, way up there. It was like the Gates of Mordor.

“I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The canyon throbbed with the thunder from 300 tons of brown, churning water that crashed each second through the narrow canyon walls. The boaters launched themselves out into the middle of it. ABC’s cameras dwelt lovingly on the kayakers as they managed to finesse the twisting currents or, alternatively, got sucked down by vortices and spat out at the end of a drop.

One video moment, his friends agree, is vintage Banducci. In a rapid nicknamed Wicked Wanda, Don manages to remain upright as his kayak is spun so it faces upstream. Mere seconds remain before he must hit an immense standing wave. Yet, incredibly, instead of repositioning his boat, Don raises his arm and nonchalantly twirls his paddle like a drum major’s baton. It’s an audacious, darkly humorous gesture.

Then the brown water folds over him. He and the boat vanish. Coughed back up yards downstream, he’s upside down and minus the paddle. Yet he manages to roll up with an empty-handed sweep of the body and coasts on into the only available eddy, arms upraised, riding high on an apparently indelible mix of skill, luck and insouciance.

Don acknowledges the paddle twirl was a message sent straight to the camera.

“A lot of people think kayaking is a death-defying sport. Although I’ve done some hard-core river-running, maybe I’m best known for the playing I’ve done, the hot-dogging, which is really a social thing. I’ve always been kind of an ambassador for the sport, trying to present the idea of having fun with it.

“There’s a carryover into how I’ve conducted business. On the river, the people with me are just as important as the water. I want to see their eyes light up, watch them have fun. It almost doesn’t matter which river you’re on, as long as you’re with the right folks.”

For Yakima, the right ones were an ex-McDonnell Douglas draftsman named Steve Cole, Steve’s wife, Jan, and a former Macy’s special events coordinator named Maggie Kerwin. They met as river-runners. Together they bought a foundering Washington State enterprise, moved it to Arcata and began to redesign its products – primarily a sleek auto roof rack that can secure loads as diverse as skis, canoes, bicycles, kayaks and sailboards.

They’ve guided their company through six successive doublings (or better) in gross sales in each of the past six years.

“We’ll gross around $3.5 million in 1985,” Don asserts – “more than twice what we did in 1984. And we’ll be a $12 million company in two to three years.”

If a major domestic automaker follows through on plans to make Yakima racks a factory-recommended option, even this estimate could be modest. For someone who enjoys a good put-on slightly better than the next man, Banducci shows an occasional tendency toward understatement.

“The camaraderie in the subculture of river-running has been an important resource for the company,” he deadpans.

Actually, Yakima bears all the earmarks of a river-runners’ conspiracy. Not only did this sport throw the original group together; many of their vendors and retail clients are people with whom Banducci has boated. In fact, when Yakima had the new roof rack concept in hand, and saw that smaller cars plus growing interest in outdoor sports equaled a blossoming market opportunity, an informal network among kayakers put Banducci in touch with venture capitalists willing to take the plunge with the company.

Besides this critical chunk of venture capital, one other ingredient was required for Yakima’s strong and timely thrust into the roof rack market: a force from the realm of kayaking that Don calls “working in Geronimo Mode.”

“On rivers, I established a reputation long ago as the kind of person who would jump into anything. `Let’s get Banducci into that, and see if it’s safe!’ I gladly fulfilled that role. How else are you going to find out what’s inside of you?

“At the same time, there’s things it would be obviously stupid and arrogant to attempt. Business and river-running both constantly measure your ability to make these decisions. What’s a good risk with a high potential payoff, and what’s just stupid? You have to assess what you can do when pushed to extremes.

“And then there’s times when you don’t have any idea – you just say `Yahoo!’ and jump in with everything you have. Geronimo Mode! And you pull things out of yourself you didn’t even know about.

“When we sold a third of the company for capital to generate our new rack, then hit the road to see if we could sell it, that was pure Geronimo Mode. Our timing turned out to be perfect. Maggie and I went out on a 9000-mile trip and got accounts from dealers who were impressed with our grass-roots approach to marketing. We even snatched REI, a critical account, three weeks before our biggest competitor showed up at their door.

“You’ve got to stay maneuverable and creative, able to make fast moves in response to the market.”

Not surprisingly, Banducci says these are navigational skills developed in the dynamic, shifting zone of whitewater.

“I think of some big, big drops I’ve run where you’re in control of your brain and your body, but you’re riding this fine line of fate with the river. A wave can explode and throw you way off your path. Then, it doesn’t matter how perfect your technique was – you’re faced with a totally unexpected set of challenges.

“Of course, that’s the name of the game in business, too. A good business plan charts alternate routes, you have escapes from all situations you can imagine, but you also have to have it in you to deal with total surprises.”

The key virtue, he says, is peace. “You don’t muster up courage to battle fear; you just set that whole question aside. What makes paddling extreme water possible isn’t being ballsy, but having a sense of peace. A laissez-faire attitude that everything’s kind of temporary anyway, and that in the larger scheme of things it really doesn’t matter whether you run a rapid or not. . . . or, if you do, whether you come out OK at the bottom. You don’t go in expecting to die, but if you’re really afraid of dying, there’s no way you can do it at all.”

But in the smaller scheme of things, Banducci expects the vital rush that comes from such a philosophy to be a guiding light through both river exploits and business ventures. In fact, when Yakima’s growth levels out in a predicted five years, and “the adventure of not knowing what’s around the next bend” is reduced past acceptable levels, he foresees using the proceeds from his share of Yakima to launch himself into fresh pursuits.

“I’d like to sail out the Golden Gate someday on a big schooner, with the sun sinking in the West, heading for parts unknown. No schedule. If I die without ever having set sail like that, I’ll feel like I’ve really missed something.”

What Banducci wants, Jack O’Neill has. He’s sailed his 60-foot oak and mahogany schooner, the Marie Celine , out beneath the Golden Gate Bridge many times. The 63-year-old inventor of the wetsuit, and current president of the world’s largest supplier of neoprene sports garments, is the archetype of the sportsman/entrepreneur who’s arrived .

Feet braced against gentle swells in the blue sea off Santa Cruz (headquarters for O’Neill Inc.), Jack grasps the helm of his latest acquisition: a 64-foot catamaran named Team O’Neill that’s equipped with a jacuzzi under a skylight so the skipper can soak his joints while he gazes up at the stars, and a mast and standing rigging that fold forward so he can launch his prop-driven airship, gaining a view of the international surf contests in which the company team often scoops top honors.

“I look for things that work both as a toy and a tool,” O’Neill says. “The balloon’s lots of fun, but it also gets the logo photographed and into magazines and stuff . . . just as the surfing has worked both ways. I’ve been very fortunate at having my sport grow into my business.”

With his muscular build, gray beard, tousled black hair and trademark black leather eye-patch, O’Neill indeed resembles the buccaneer he’s often compared to in print. I see him more as Odin, the Viking god who plucked out his own eye and tossed it in Mimir’s well. It was the fee for a single drink of the magic water that brought Odin great wisdom – and the thirst for more. O’Neill has paid dues for his fascination with the sea.

He lost the use of his left eye in a collision with his board during “a freak wave suck-out” at The Hook (a spot near his cliffside home); his knees and shoulders are troubled from the wear of years spent paddling boards; he has kidney problems he thinks stem from inhaling fumes from the foam used to blow surfboard blanks and the synthetic rubbers he annealed, scorched and glued into some of the world’s first wetsuits.

But the rewards have also been great. From being just one of three surf shops in the entire state of California, O’Neill Inc. has grown into an empire that grosses $20 million a year from neoprene garment and licensed sportswear sales throughout the world. O’Neill has refused to barter off ocean time to bring about his business success.

“I’ve had a wetsuit on at least once a day for the last 30 years,” he claims. During that time his business may have grown slowly, but it has remained a desired blend of the sublime and the professional.

“Where some people might feel like they need a drink,” Jack says, “I feel like I need the ocean. When things get kind of tight, I’ll go down to the beach, and Christ, sometimes it’s cold and foggy and you really don’t feel like jumping in. But you do, and then you suddenly find yourself riding this great wall of water that you can go up or down in or cross or dive through, and you’re surrounded by the power, and it’s a tremendous release.

“Out there, everything’s happening at once, and you don’t have time for anything else. Getting a ride on a terrific wall of water just puts you into another zone, and when you go to sleep at night, that’s what you’re thinking about. Not your problems, but that beautiful curl you were in.”

Ben Srebow, O’Neill’s CEO, feels that Jack’s aquatic fascinations have given him more than concepts in wetsuit design.

“Many things are in flux, constant movement,” Srebow says. “Especially, you can see that in the ocean. I think that is the way Jack is. Having lunch with him is for me like going surfing.

“He keeps up that constant flow of ideas. I might say, `No! That won’t work!’ but the wave keeps coming back. He can be incredibly stubborn, like a wave pounding a rock. Eventually the rock will take the shape of the wave. And finally I’ll say OK, and we’ll do it. And it works.”

“The sea’s a great teacher,” O’Neill says. “But big surf is something you have to build up to. You’ve got to have your rips figured out. Learn to read the water, take a look, see what’s happening, have a strategy. Surfers naturally do that after being out with waves for days on end. If you keep your head clear, all your timing and your reflexes will come right out of your experience.

“So, you see a big wave coming, and you go for it. And then the big thing is to stay completely relaxed, especially if you wipe out. Panic is just the wrong response. You might get held down, and there goes your oxygen. You get rolled around down there, and you just have to let go, because you don’t know which way is up, anyhow.

“I’ve been glad to swim up to my next breath a few times. And I’ve been glad to make it back to the beach when I’ve been carried away by rip tides, during a few cold winters at Ocean Beach. And the main thing was always to relax, until the situation felt right, then make the move.”

Does he transfer these methods to the world of business? Jack strokes his gray beard, blinks his good eye, considers the question.

“The things a man experiences in his sport can be the most important things in his life. The sense of self-reliance. Your ability to read a situation and relax in it. The way you seize opportunity. If you have something that’s hot, a design that clicks, you just go for it , and that’s got the same feel as going for a wave.

“In fact, I think there’s a good parallel there for the whole thing. You don’t want to get into a conqueror mentality. You flow with it. You don’t butt heads with the ocean, you work with it. You want to keep your cool and stay grounded.”

He laughs. “Of course, staying grounded when you’re at sea is sometimes a pretty good trick!”

Like O’Neill, Lost Arrow/Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard right from the beginning struck a bargain with his business that tends to keep him outdoors – and preferably in wilderness – at least half the year.

“The more I get out and do different sports,” Chouinard says, “the more valuable I am to the business, really, because that’s where I get my ideas. I don’t get ’em sitting at a desk!”

It’s hard to say just when Chouinard’s company started. Did it begin in 1957, when he toured the country’s top climb spots, making pitons for other mountaineers with the hand forge he carried in the trunk of his car? Or in 1966, when he and Tom Frost began making and selling equipment from a tin shack behind an abandoned slaughterhouse in Ventura?

In any case, that old slaughterhouse is now refurbished and surrounded by several new buildings, all bustling with the activities of his six companies (including Chouinard Equipment and Patagonia) grouped under the heading of Lost Arrow Corporation.

This year, Lost Arrow will gross almost $40 million, and managers find themselves in the enviable spot of trying to keep growth down to 25 percent so they can retain the company’s intimate character. A corporate logo emblazoned on the Lost Arrow headquarters consists of two crossed arrows with fletching made of hawk feathers.

The symbol suggests Chouinard’s early interest in falconry, which originally got him out scrambling around on cliffs. It also suggests Lost Arrow Spire, the slim granite pinnacle climbed with revolutionary tools and techniques by John Salathe in the ’40s. The logo was adapted from an ancient Samurai crest, thus also reflecting Chouinard’s interest in the Orient, acquired during an Army tour of duty in Korea.

Chouinard has read the Samurai text “The Book of Five Rings,” but says he got “absolutely nothing” from it. On the other hand, he does admire the Samurai, and the American frontiersmen, “who had adventures happen every day, just from trying to survive.” He says that risk sports, for those who stay with them, can involve a similar Bushido.

“You can learn things much faster if there’s some element of risk involved, because it forces you to really concentrate. And it forces you to use other parts of your brain that you probably don’t normally use. You’re like an artist, totally intent on his sculpture, so that eight hours seem to pass like one. Being on the edge produces the same effect; it gives you the concentration that allows you to transcend time.”

For Chouinard, staying on the edge in the garment trade meant dropping polypropylene fabric, since “It’s gotten too generic,” and even the popular bunting jacket that Malinda, his wife, calls “the jacket that built our houses” – simply because there are now too many knock-offs of the design.

Instead, this year the company unveiled jackets in a new fabric, Synchilla, and its own new undergarment fabric, Capilene.

Jettisoning some of his most successful products may be a risk, Chouinard concedes, but what he says of risk-taking could go for every other sports adventurer in this article. “Probably my strongest point as a businessman is that I’m willing to take risks! That ability is something cultivated through all the years of mountaineering.”

In his manual on climbing ice, Chouinard writes about a climb on Wyoming’s Gannet Peak, at age 17, when he attempted to traverse a snow field positioned above a 900-foot cliff. He soon discovered that when fear made him lean in toward the mountain, his feet quickly slipped, and he was forced to claw at the snow to keep from falling. On the other hand, if he plunged his feet down with vigor and trusted his sense of balance, he found he could proceed with little trouble.

“That day,” he wrote, “I learned quite a lot about the insidious effects of fear.”

In a recent conversation with me in a sushi bar in Ventura, Chouinard enlarged on this theme.

“Once you decide to go for a thing,” he said, “if you don’t go whole hog, then you add a certain negativism, a self-defeating type of thing, and sure enough, it doesn’t work out. Loss of confidence produces failure.”

“Mountaineering was the best school I could ever have for business, and life in general,” Chouinard concludes. “You can get far more training in how to conduct yourself in business from climbing than you ever can from the Stanford Business School.

“I look around, and I see American businessmen reading books on the Samurai, trying to learn how to be more aggressive, you know, and have that good clean stroke.” He pauses. The smile on his thin face is gentle and mocking, but his gaze is merciless as a hawk’s.

“Well, that’s not something you learn from a book!”

Archives: Other Northern California Lighthouses

Follows the Course of Maritime History

September 16, 2012
By Paul McHugh

Conquistador and explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed right by the narrow entry to San Francisco Bay without noticing it in 1542. For two additional centuries, other adventurous sea captains like Sir Francis Drake and Sebastian Vizcaino kept on missing the Golden Gate. Only after the entrance was discovered and ships began to seek passage into the bay in 1775 did they discover the strait’s dangers as well.

Trying to thread the rock-rimmed eye of this navigational needle – worried by potent currents, blasted by wind and obscured by fog – was not for the faint of heart. It presented a test that many skippers failed. A classic book, “Shipwrecks at the Golden Gate,” details the sinking of nearly a hundred ships here, as well as twice that many vessels stranded, rammed or capsized in the same area.Point-Bonita-Lighthouse

Some remedy finally arrived. “Let there be lights,” said Congress in 1852, and it proceeded to establish the United States Light House Service. After the Point Bonita lighthouse was erected on a promontory of the Marin County headlands in 1855, the shining beam of its whale-oil lamp, focused on a horizontal plane by prisms of an imported Fresnel lens, began to guide mariners into safe harbor.

Today, the Point Bonita light and others on the California shore are beacons for people who look for a great excuse to make an approach from the inland side. They can visit lighthouses to enjoy cool ocean vistas, to target recreational opportunities in the coastal region, to spot migratory whales in fall or spring, and to inhale a whiff of history.

A rebuilt footbridge re-opened public access all the way out to the Point Bonita light in April, and visitors can now undertake the half-mile walk to the historic site between 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays for free. Such visitation is enabled and guided by citizen- volunteers of the 75,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which surrounds the overlook.

On a recent Monday, several dozen visitors of many ages and nationalities lined up for Point Bonita. A volunteer unlocked a steel door set in a lichen-splashed cliff of coastal rock, then led the way through a hand-hewn, 118-foot-long tunnel carved by Chinese laborers in 1877. That was when the light, originally placed much higher on the hillside, was moved to its current elevation so it could shine its beams below the high fogs.

Next, a visitor reaches several photographic vantage points for the light, and finally, a 132-foot pedestrian bridge that stretches to the lighthouse proper.

In the early days, a perilous footpath led the way out to the light for the keeper and his “wickies” (assistants), but that crumbled away, requiring an access bridge to be built in 1954. It too succumbed to the onslaught of ocean weather and was demolished in 2010.

The new suspension bridge uses abutments from the old one, and bears more than a passing resemblance to its humongous orange sister to the east – the Golden Gate Bridge – although this smaller conveyance is white, and needless to say, closed to vehicular traffic. Walking on it, you will notice a bit of sway, a small amount of bounce, enough to add a dose of excitement as you stroll a hundred feet above the base of wave-lashed cliffs.

Once across, you’ll see the iron lighthouse structure close-up, as well as the stout foghorn building and a small set of historic displays, and meet the informative volunteers who seem eager to share the lore of this site.

“I’ve hiked all over the GGNRA with my husband, and I felt like I wanted to contribute something back,” said an ebullient Elizabeth Hoffman. “People really enjoy coming out here.

“The only thing that can detract from a visit is if they forget to bring a windbreaker. Or try to hike down the trail in flip-flops or high heels.”

At the Point Bonita lighthouse, history lessons arrive in different forms. The progress of the illumination source itself comprises a mini-course in tech development: whale oil lamp (1855-70); kerosene wick lamp (1870-1913); incandescent vapor lamp (1913-27); electric bulb (1927-present) – the latter now a 1,000-watt item replaced every six months by the Coast Guard.

And the foghorn out here rode a similar technical trajectory, from cannon fire every half-hour back in 1856 to an electric horn that now gets triggered automatically when a laser detects enough moisture in the atmosphere.

When you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge at 45 mph, keeping your eye on the traffic that hurtles ahead and behind, it’s quite hard to take in the majesty of the strait below you and seaward with anything more than a swift glance. However, once you walk out to the Point Bonita light, you’ll find abundant space and time to appreciate the vastness of the sea and the stately in-and-out passage of deep-water vessels.

You may even indulge in casting your thoughts back to the wiry old salts with “h-o-l-d f-a-s-t” tattooed on their knuckles, clinging to the lofty spars of tall ships as they rode the prevailing westerlies in through a perilous passage, seeking respite and refuge in one of the most lovely harbors sailors ever found.

Archives: Shasta Preacher

Paul McHugh Comments

Call it creative mountaineering. When the Reverend Douglas Smith decided to live as a hermit atop Mt. Shasta to protest the war in Vietnam, it was a stroke that simultaneously brought him closer to fulfillment of his ideals, and much, much higher in the headlines. Smith boldly undertook a physical and spiritual adventure, and I never climb or ski upon Shasta without thinking of that remarkable episode. Interesting side-note: his son, Matt Smith, currently works as a lead investigative reporter for the tabloid SF Weekly, where he carries on his dad’s noble mission of praising the virtuous and smiting heathen.

The Preacher on the Peak

It was the most exalted pulpit in America, and the loneliest. A screaming wind served as both organ and choir. Stained-glass light came in just three colors: a cobalt blue high-altitude sky, the absolute black night that lay behind that blue, and a blinding white shimmer of snow and ice.

For his sermon to get out, the preacher relied on a frail thread of visitors that the mountain’s moods could snap at any time – a procession of the devout shuffling along on crampons through freezing mist as they bore up food, fuel and word of the outside world.

But he kept faith in his core inspiration: no one driving up Interstate 5 could avoid seeing that huge mountain jutting above the horizon. And anyone seeing it couldn’t help but think – if only for an instant – about that lunatic Methodist who’d left his parsonage in the quiet town of Etna to find a more emphatic way of making his point.

On June 11, 1971, the Reverend Douglas Smith, 35, climbed Mount Shasta to protest the Vietnam War. His intention was to live for a year atop the mountain above 14,000 feet – the same length of time that drafted American boys were obliged to endure the maelstrom of violence in Indochina.

Mt. Shasta. Albert Bierstadt. 1800s.

Mt. Shasta. Albert Bierstadt. 1800s.“I’d done demonstrations against the war in Etna – my little town of 700 people – but it wasn’t satisfying,” Smith recalls. “Then one night, gazing into the fire, I saw that Mount Shasta was the dominant symbol of all of Northern California. You couldn’t miss it. And as a dormant volcano, it was a natural peace symbol. It’s got more power than nuclear bombs, yet sits there quite peaceful and beautiful in the hands of the Creator.”

And so it came to pass that Smith and a support team of 16 followers – including local teacher and mountaineer Merwyn Rickey – made their way up to the peak after a night camped in howling winds at Lake Helen, and installed the preacher near the summit plateau.

The site of Smith’s harsh alpine hermitage was just 160 feet below the peak, near an area where volcanic vapors and hot water seeped from fractured Earth – the spot where John Muir had once lain down and turned himself into a human rotisserie in order to survive one night on the mountaintop.

For his longer stay, Smith was much better equipped than Muir. He had a four-season tent, duck-down-filled booties, vest and a sleeping bag with nine inches of loft. All these were hand-sewn from kits by Kathleen Smith, his wife of eight years and the mother of his three children. He had a big supply of dried Mormon survival food and a walkie-talkie radio he didn’t yet realize would not reach all the way down the mountain.

After the tent was dug in, and the support team turned around to leave him there, Smith says, “I felt about as lonely as a human being could feel. I didn’t know if I could go through with it. I did know I’d probably die up there before I went back down.”

Within days, winds too strong to stand against beat his stout tent into a heap of broken poles and ripped nylon. Smith was forced to dig a snow cave for refuge. Sunburn blistered and peeled his face while he tried to figure out ways of protecting every centimeter of skin.

Smith’s lonely demonstration occurred at a time in America when your stand on Vietnam was considered a litmus test of patriotism. And rural Northern California was a notoriously conservative enclave. Parishioners of his church debated fiercely among themselves about what their minister was doing. Partisans and opponents waged epistolary battles in the editorial pages of local papers.

One stinging message that reached him from the valley floor was word of a resolution by businessmen of the Mount Shasta Chamber of Commerce. It recommended that – should Smith get into trouble up there – the county should not spend a dime of public funds trying to rescue him. Up on the peak, his main concern had to be the daily needs of simple survival. When hard winds blew daggers of ice horizontally through the air, he spent long days in sleep. When at last he could move outside, it was a welcome relief from the cramped snow cave with its damp, dripping walls. Acids in the volcanic vapors dissolved the stitching in his clothing; much time was spent sewing things back together, and he had to wonder what those vapors were doing to his lungs.

Unfortunately, the Mormon dried food did not reconstitute well at high altitude. Fortunately, the parade of visitors and supporters would swell through the summer, when the weather was good. With them came fresh food, high-calorie snacks and even the blessing of an occasional beer.

And with them came an opportunity to explain himself.

“I am a patriot,” Smith said. “And I love my country. But I do not love what we are doing in Vietnam. The war is a malignancy. It’s eating people up, ours as well as theirs. We are a democracy, and in straits like this every citizen must maximize his or her voice, which is why I’m up here talking about this.”

Not all visitors to the peak that summer were receptive to the reasons behind Smith’s high-altitude hermitage. Some radiated hostility, especially a young man who showed up with a pair of long-barreled revolvers strapped to his body.

“I felt really lucky there were other people around that day,” Smith relates. “There was no overt indication he wanted to create problems, yet why else climb up a mountain wearing six pounds of weapons?”

With Smith’s increasing notoriety came national media attention: wire stories by UPI and the Associated Press – even mention on Paul Harvey’s syndicated radio show. And in the classic 20th century feedback loop, media attention meant more visitation, which meant more attention.

In several cases, his visitors were poorly prepared for the mountain, and Smith had to jeopardize his own life in order to ensure their survival.

Pine Marten.

But not all aspects of life on the mountain were grim. There was the matter of his humorous turf battle with the pine marten. This clever, house cat-sized member of the weasel family had a scam going. He’d found a steam-heated pile of rocks for a house, and a year-round food supply in plastic sacks of garbage buried by climbers on the mountaintop.

When Smith’s snow cave began to suffer meltdown in July, he followed the pine marten’s lead and built a rock hut in that same heap of volcanic talus. This usurpation of prime space was more than the short-tempered beast could bear.

“Afterwards, when I was out, he’d come and rip open my chocolate and powdered milk, and scatter it all over the hut,” Smith said. “He also had a bad habit of excreting right in my doorway. I think he was trying to tell me something.”

When the wind and other forces of nature quieted down, Smith could actually envision the peak as a rather healthy place. “The germ count was zero, and there was no pollen to aggravate my asthma. The water I drank was pure, boiled snow, and all my rigorous exercise meant I was really burning off calories. I dropped 35 pounds of unnecessary weight up there. After a month, I could just run around like a goat.

“I began to see that I might not be in such great jeopardy, as long as I stayed real careful.”

And there came moments when Shasta and the surrounding land and sky were suffused with a transfiguring beauty. “There were incredible sunrises and sunsets,” Smith recalls. “It was marvelous to see the shadow of the mountain cast out into infinity, just like it was shooting straight off the edge of the Earth.”

But there were also nights of terror, when he would awaken in a sweat that the volcano was about to explode under him; or ice and snow were about to surround, seal and suffocate him.

And the sense of social and sensual deprivation became overwhelming.

“After a while, you just can’t stand that harsh, sterile white any longer,” Smith said. “You just get kind of rummy from it.”

Despite traditions of wilderness theophanies – Moses and the Burning Bush, or Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert – Smith says, “There really is no way to manipulate God. He wasn’t closer to me on that mountain than he is to you in the city. It’s not right to think, “I’ve come all the way up here, now God is obliged to reveal himself more clearly.’ A person in a slum or a prison should have exactly the same access.

“In fact, on clear days, when I would look down on the cities, and the patchwork pattern of all the farms, a feeling swept over me that I really wanted to be down among those people, working there. I wanted to be home. I was only up on the mountain to try to stop the killing.”

Several summer thunderstorms raged over the peak, giving Smith and his supporters a taste of the nightmare they’d face in trying to keep the lifeline of hikers intact through winter. The prospect was formidable: Weeks could pass without being able to make any contact.

Though a hardened cadre of supporters remained committed, their numbers steadily waned.

In September, Merwyn Rickey, his face lined with fatigue from six Shasta climbs in as many weeks, arrived with a handful of letters from supporters asking the preacher to abandon his protest. He found Smith hard at work building a foundation for a new plywood hut, in which they had theorized he might be able to survive the winter.

“I was of two minds,” Smith recalls. “Part of me said, bulls – – -, I’m not going to stop just because others are giving up. But another part of me was willing to seize any excuse to come down. What helped me decide was that in winter the hikers would be in the greatest danger, not me. I’d be safely bivouacked-in at the top, while they’d be fully exposed. That made a clean argument for coming off. But the bottom line was – I really couldn’t handle the social and sensual deprivation anymore.”

After three continuous months in the sterile realm of high alpine light, Smith abandoned his lofty hermitage.

“Coming into the green areas below tree line was incredible. I had to stop every 10 feet to admire blossoms and ferns. Every little mossy rock seemed like a magnificent thing. “And when I got down to the buildings of the old ski area, I was reunited with my wife and kids. I had missed them desperately. The television cameras were ready to intrude on our reunion, of course.”

Reporters asked if Smith felt he was losing face by abandoning his vigil. Not at all, he stoutly replied. “The United States can do the same thing about getting out of Vietnam.”

The truth was, as soon as he came down he began to feel that he had made a mistake. New mountaineers stepped forward, ready to take up slack in his support crew; and the winter of 1971-72 went on to develop as one of Shasta’s mildest in a decade.

Yet the momentum of his commitment continued to play out anyway. Smith went on to Washington, D.C., to lobby against the war. News of his exploit immediately connected him to the Quaker peace movement, and provided some entree to congressional offices.

Siskiyou County

Finally back in Siskiyou County, Smith moved into a tiny, rustic dome with his wife and kids, and began supporting himself with odd jobs as a carpenter. It was a year and a half before he felt able to involve himself again with the regular affairs of the Methodist church.

These days Smith can be found at his church in Knights Landing in Yolo County or tending the homeless at a shelter in Sacramento. He did little mountaineering before Shasta, and has done none since then. He’s surprised sometimes that others still remember his vigil on the mountain. Memorabilia of the time are scant: a dog-eared cardboard file full of notes, some yellowing photographs, a packet of letters tied with string.

But some of his personal memories are crystal-bright.

“Sometime after I came down, I got stopped by a highway patrolman in Yreka for a missing taillight. After he found out who I was, he frankly told me that, during the days of my protest, if he’d gotten me in the sights of a scoped rifle with no one around, he probably would’ve shot me.

“He didn’t agree with what I was saying, at all. But he’d read everything he could on what I was doing and why. He felt I was serious, and after I came down he admired what I’d done.

“And I thought, the mountain was perfect for that. Being able to use it as a magnified way of addressing people – that’s the stuff of dreams.”

Archives: The Plane That Won The War

Four roaring engines on the bomber’s silver wings vibrated the air above the tarmac, and the B-17 began to glide forward. Behind the plane’s Plexiglas nose dome, a tall man sat straight and proud in the bombardier’s chair.

This was Colonel John C. “Red” Morgan, awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1943 after his plane was shot up by German fighters. That day he was forced to hold off his wounded and crazed pilot with one hand while he flew the plane all the way in to the target and part way back, until another surviving crew member could enter the cockpit and relieve the situation.

A few months later, shot down over Berlin, Morgan was blown into the sky as his plane exploded. The order to bail out had come just seconds before; holding under one arm the parachute he’d barely managed to snag, Morgan fell 20,000 feet before he could clip it into place and yank the ripcord – only to float down into the hands of a German flak crew and be taken prisoner.

But here he was, going up again. Many things had changed since that raid on Berlin. Red Morgan’s flaming shock of red hair had turned white. His B-17 was not taxiing past other prop-driven warplanes, but sleek modern jets. And he wasn’t launching into a hazardous sorty, but a flight of celebration. Morgan was one of a swarm of World War II aviation vets who had descended on Seattle’s Boeing Field for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the B-17.

Mount Rainier’s snow-clad watched, silent and gleaming in the near distance, just as it had back in 1935, when the B-17 prototype – Boeing Model No. 299, the largest land plane in the United States at the time – lifted off from this very field to make a record, 2100-mile nonstop flight at over 250 mph to Wright Field in Ohio. By doing so, it won a U.S. Army competition for a new bomber.

Once in production, the B-17, nicknamed the Flying Fortress, was mated with crews of citizen soldiers from across America. Those flights went to Europe in 1942 as an initial wave of direct American involvement in the struggle to defeat Hitler’s Germany. By several accounts, it was the single most important wave. The B-17, more than any other weapon, was responsible for the defeat of the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. This victory made possible all other Allied successes on the European fronts.

As might be imagined, the Luftwaffe did not go gently into that good night. The first formations of B-17s were flung against the Third Reich at the zenith of its power. It is a tribute to the design strength of the B-17s and the courage of their youthful crews (their average age was 20) that their missions ultimately succeeded so well.

“I had been hauling logs in the woods of Oregon,” said Mickey Foster, who was with Red Morgan during the 8th Army Air Force’s most harrowing days, “Well, Uncle Sam decided I was going to take up field artillery, instead. I was drafted in early ’41. Although the situation looked bad, I didn’t figure on being in a war. Then the Japs hit Pearl Harbor, and it looked as if I was going to be in a war for a good long while.

“I didn’t want to be stuck with the foot soldiers. So I took an exam to enter training in aviation. I wanted to get into fighters, but they made a mistake on my orders and sent me to multi-engine school instead. Then I went on to ‘B-17 Transition’ in Washington, where we hooked up with our particular crews, and got to know the plane.

“Flying a B-17 was just like driving a big truck. They forgave a lot of mistakes. They were easy to land as a Piper Cub, and you could even fly them on two engines. Once I got to know the planes, I felt a little reassured.”

The British did not feel reassured. Twenty of the first B-17s built were rushed to England for use by the Royal Air Force; eight were promptly lost. B-17s, designed as precision daylight bombers, did not fit well with British tactical concepts. The Brits had seen Germans fail at daylight bombing in the Battle of Britain, and they failed at it now themselves, over occupied Europe. They decided they preferred night raids, which hampered anti-aircraft fire and Luftwaffe fighter retaliation. The British urged America to abandon B-17s and begin production of their own Lancaster night bombers.

The U.S. Navy men weighed in with their own objections: They thought American production should be devoted to heavy cargo planes, for ferrying supplies to Navy ships and bases. But believers in the potential of the Flying Fortress prevailed, and production of B-17 planes and crews proceeded at a mounting pace.

“B-17 school is where I met old Pop Nicol,” Foster remembered, “our tail-gunner – who wound up being my best friend in the crew. He was a tough customer, a coal miner in his middle 30s with a wife and five kids. One day he told his wife he was heading down to find work at the Baltimore shipyards. Next thing she heard, he’d enlisted and signed on as a gunner for B-17s. I think Pop knew things were breaking loose, and he wanted some of the excitement. Well, by God, he got it!

“One time during training I buzzed a tugboat on the Columbia River. Came up on him from behind, so he couldn’t see us. The captain had a little pilot house right up on top, and when I got about 10 feet over his head I changed the pitch on all four props, which made a helluva thundering racket.

“Well, Pop was watching from his turret, and he said that guy came running out so mad he couldn’t see straight, just waving his fists and dancing around. Must’ve scared the damn daylights right out of him.

“Now, that was a stupid thing for me to do. What made it seem especially stupid was a cable I suddenly saw strung across the river. I barely managed to dive the plane under it! But all of our pranking around did some good; it showed us what the plane could do, and helped build the morale we were going to need later. We didn’t know it at the time, but one of the secrets of getting back from missions was having a crew that really knew how to pull together.”

Part of the plane’s mythology was that a bombardier using the B-17’s new Norden sight could drop a bomb “straight down a pickle barrel” from 20,000 feet. Actually, on a level and steady practice run, a bombardier at that altitude who hit within 300 yards of the barrel might consider himself a pretty fair shot. But the crews who began to ferry planes overseas soon found the British had been absolutely correct about one thing: It was hard to take a good shot in broad daylight, when you could see everyone trying to take a good shot at you.

After the Luftwaffe’s severe losses to RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain, the German air force received a flood of new aircraft, thanks to Reich procurement maestro Albert Speer. By August of ’43, air superiority over Europe began to revert to the Nazis.

Of all the Luftwaffe fighter planes, the most formidable and feared was the “Wurger,” or “Butcher-Bird,” the Focke-Wulf 190. Attacking a flight of B-17s head-on, an aggressively piloted FW-190 could close at a combined speed of 500 mpg, firing from 20mm cannons and .30 caliber machine guns. In the last nerve-wracking moments before collision, the Nazi fighters would then break off in a sudden half-roll or dive.

“You never knew where they would come up to meet you,” said Foster. “Sometimes they’d fight you going in, sometimes coming out. On December 5 of ’43, we went in to bomb their aircraft assembly plant at Bordeaux, and they hit us both ways and shot us all to hell.

“These were the guys we called the Abbeville Kids – Hermann Goering’s personal squadron. Their planes all had the noses painted bright yellow. The Kids were dedicated professionals. I forget how many B-17s we lost that day – something like 40 – and I never did see one of their fighters go down. They came in from the front, barrel-rolling straight through the formation to spray their bullets around and make themselves harder for our gunners to hit.

“One smart aleck came in from behind – just slipped in between me and my right wingman, so neither of our gunners could fire at him. That’s when I fired my only shot of the whole damn war, with a Very pistol that was set in the roof of the cabin. I reached up and triggered it, shooting a green flare right past him. He veered right, put a burst into the next plane’s number three engine, rolled over and slid away without any of us getting another shot at him. Slick. They knew what they were doing.

“But we made it in to drop our bombs, even though I almost got my balls shot off. I was taking evasive action, and pulled up just as a shell drilled right through the front of my seat. It kept going into the next compartment, hit the oxygen bottles and blew up the plywood floorboards. I had my leather jacket on, and it blew a load of slivers into it, but they didn’t draw any blood, so I never got a Purple Heart. In fact, just one crewman was hurt – a guy who had a finger shot away.

“The plane was absolutely riddled. One engine was shot completely off the wing, another had its turbocharger shot out. Our oxygen was gone, the radios were shot up and the ball turret gunner could see holes in the landing gear nacelles. After the bomb run, we couldn’t maintain altitude; we had to drop back out of formation and fly home alone. Which was especially dangerous, because the Luftwaffe just swarmed all over stragglers . . . and we’d already run out of ammo. Even though we’d regularly bribed an armaments sergeant to give us twice the usual requisition of machine-gun rounds.

“Finally we limped back across the English Channel, only to find out our IFF (Identification: Friend-or-Foe) signal wasn’t broadcasting. All the anti-aircraft guns on the English coast started to fire up at us. That made us change our minds and head back out to sea. We were finally able to get a dinky short-range radio working, the Darky radio, and call off the English gunners. But by then, we were out of gas. Had to make an emergency landing at a P-38 small fighter plane field. We had no flaps left, and flat tires on one side of the landing gear. So when we touched down, me and the pilot stood on the brakes for the other side. But we still swerved, left the runway and plowed into the mud. We’d made it, but our ground crew sure had a mess of patching up to do on the plane.”

Myasam Dragon , Foster’s ship, had her name and a flame-spouting logo prominently displayed on her nose. Most B-17 crews regarded their planes with affection, even endowed them with aspects of personality. Structural strength had been wisely distributed throughout the semi-monocoque fuselage. The plane seemed to have a mystic ability to sustain incredible damage and still bring its crew back home. Many of the Dragon ‘s flying companions were also given names infused with punny humor and a certain rowdy romanticism: Phartzac , Vertical Shaft , Damdifino and, of course, the Memphis Belle , the first bomber to complete all her missions. In 1943, this was something of an accomplishment. Fewer than one B-17 in five managed to complete all 25 missions.

Most ships went down before they had flown 10 missions – before their crews got savvy. Many others returned so riddled with flak and gunfire they could never fly again. These became anonymous “Hangar Queens,” bequeathing their parts to those still airworthy. The big problem with keeping ’em flying was that long-range escorts had not yet been effectively developed. When the cover of Spitfires and P-38s fighters bade farewell to a flight of B-17s at the edge of the continent, the bombers had to go on by themselves, huddling together in tight formations to maximize protection from their own .50 caliber guns. They flew on into the teeth of a German fighter force that had started to realize that its own airfield and production facilities were the 8th Air Force’s main target.

The Third Reich was beginning to reap what it had sown.

Traveling to London on leave, Foster could see all around him the fantastic devastation wrought by Luftwaffe bombs during the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz. The Germans still managed to pull off occasional raids.

But the reason for go on leave was to relieve tension, not acquire it. This was accomplished by touring pubs, not bombed-out Allied buildings. Unwinding in the pubs a bit also gave the crews a chance to get to know each other better.

“Out of all our bomb group’s tail-gunners, old Pop was the best,” said Foster. “He never got excited or rattled; in fact, he helped the rest of us stay cool. Actually, Pop might’ve been a little too cool. He liked to drink, and one night we got him pretty well oiled in a London pub and he said, `You know, Mick, I kind of fool those Jerries when they’re coming at us.’ I said, `How do you do that, Pop?’ He said, `Well, I just sort of wink one gun at ’em, to make ’em think my guns are jammed. Then I just wait until they come up close, and really let ’em have it.’ I hit the ceiling. `You SOB,’ I yelled. `You better start hosing those bastards down with both guns while they’re still out there!’ ”

After the pub crawls came the long trip back to the chilly Nissen huts at Bury St. Edmunds. This lodging Foster described as, “like a big tomato can buried in mud.” It took all the coal a B-17 crew could get by legal means – and then some – to keep the places warm. To keep things interesting, every once in a while, the Luft-waffe managed to pull off a nocturnal revenge raid.

“There was some dame that used to broadcast from over there, like Berlin’s Tokyo Rose,” recalled Foster. “One day, she surprised us by saying that they were going to come over and bomb hell out of the 94th Bomb Group at Bury St. Edmunds. So that night we turned off all the lights in the camp, and turned on this other bunch we’d set up about five miles away. At 9 o’clock, when we heard them come over, I didn’t even bother to get out of bed. Just laid there laughing, listening to them bomb hell out of that set of dummy lights.”

Other, milder sorts of enmity were part of the scene, too. Once, after a local dance, Foster found himself being hoisted in the air and thrown through a plate-glass store-front by five British servicemen who objected to his friendship with a WAAF (a woman in England’s Auxiliary Air Force). The British soldier’s common complaint about Yanks was that they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

Some additional chagrin may have come from the fact that the Americans were starting to succeed with their program of precision daylight bombing of military targets. The RAF had dared a few daylight raids, but most of their bombing effort was nocturnal and directed at the civilian populations of industrial cities, with the goal of “undermining their morale.” This policy reached horrific fruition in the fire-bombings of Hamburg and Dresden. (Dresden, packed with refugees from the Eastern front, saw some 135,000 civilian casualties – more than would later die in Hiroshima.)

Finally, a game-changer showed up. In January of ’44 the first P-51 Mustang escort planes appeared. The Allies at last found themselves with a few fighters that could outperform the best German planes and also escort bombers all the way to their targets. With a vengeance, the 8th Air Force now took the air war to the source of all its troubles: the German heartland.

“If a single enemy bomber ever reaches the Reich,” the rotund commander of the Luftwaffe had once boasted, “my name is not Hermann Goering – you can call me Meier!” In 1944, the air raid sirens that German civilians had sardonically christened “Herr Meier’s hunting horns” were howling all the way from the industrial zone of the Ruhr Valley to the German capital.

But when American bomber crews slipped on oxygen masks and ascended to a battlefield five miles above the earth they had more worries than Luftwaffe squadrons swarming up from airdromes. They also encountered whole thunderstorms of flak, shot into the heavens by gun crews far below. These black, sooty flowers with their cores of glowing red were not as harmless as they looked. Each exploding shell scattered whirling fragments of jagged metal that ripped through wings and hulls; a direct hit could tear a wing or tail section right off. Especially when sticking to a route during final bomb run approaches, gauntlets of flak could not be avoided. They could only be endured.

At times, the very weather seemed an enemy. Since ports had to be kept open for the B-17’s dozen .50 caliber machine guns, the plane fuselages were neither heated nor pressurized. As they soared above 20,000 feet on winter missions, the interior temperature often dropped to 30 to 50 below zero, and exposed metal became coated with frost. Though the men wore electric long johns and fleece-lined flying suits, for every three wounded in combat another four were disabled by frostbite.

In addition, treacherous flying conditions – thick clouds, fog and poor visibility – were commonplace. Such conditions produced collisions on takeoff, failure to find the target or, worst, when returning on a crippled bird with wounded aboard, failure to find the home airfield, a terrifying experience followed by a crash landing or a ditch in the icy North Sea. Sometimes a confusion of logistics or orders amplified all of these dangers.

“On the 11th of January, we took off on our worst mission of the war,” said Foster. “There were supposedly 663 bombers going over after a Messerschmitt factory in Brunswick, and targets in two other towns. The weather was bad, so over the French coast, headquarters issued a recall. Most of the planes turned around and went home. But Thorup, the leader of our flight, said he didn’t hear the confirmation word.

“I radioed him and said I’d heard it, but he didn’t even answer me. He just led us right on to Brunswick, and we had to follow. We were just three squadrons, of about 21 planes each. Our ship was with Thorup’s, in the lead squadron. We ran into flak and fighters on the way in, but we really caught hell over the target.

“What made it worse was that Thorup’s bombardier, the lead bombardier, couldn’t even find the target the first time over. The camouflage had been changed from the way it was described in the briefing. Thorup’s bombardier radioed the change back to the other squadrons, and they hit it OK. But we had to circle and make another pass.

“By then, all the other planes had toggled their bombs and lit out for home. Which made us the stragglers, and for two hours we fought our way out of there against every fighter the Germans could put up – JU-88s, ME-110s, ME-210s – you could see them swarming up from the ground just like ants. If they could’ve put wings on the kitchen sink, they probably would’ve sent that up, too.”

Myasam Dragon trembled from the continuous recoil of her .50 caliber guns, shuddered under the impact of bullets from her foes. Though the plane was riddled, none of her vitals were pierced. Then they saw a plane closing in on them at an impossible speed. It was a twin-engined ME-262, one of the world’s first combat jets and Hitler’s secret weapon for retaining control of the skies.

“Pop was on the intercom,” continued Foster. “He said, `Hey, Mick, there’s some kind oftrange plane back here. Don’t have any propellers. Looks like he’s lining up to shoot something!’ They had rockets under each wing, and they’d lay out beyond range of our guns, aim and fire. But Pop was still cool. He said, `OK, I see smoke . . . he’s fired! It’s coming at us!’ Those 50mm rockets were slower than a bullet, you could see ’em coming in. I yanked up on the wheel, and the rocket went under us and blew up. I didn’t get any hits on that, but Bill Seeley sure did. Had one hit behind his pilot’s chair and put a hole in the plane you could walk through.

“That one, I didn’t think we were going to make it back from. I was puckered up all the way to England. On that mission is when I learned how to pray, even though I’m not a religious man. The formation helped save us. We were in the front, and that time they attacked mostly from the rear. Of our 21 planes, 11 were wiped out from the back V’s. We made it, but there was nearly 300 holes in our ship.

“Seeley’s was the last to limp in, with that huge hole in the cabin, and two engines gone on one wing. Seeley had been a helluva good-looking guy, with bright red hair, but I saw him the next day and his hair was all dingy, like it had been bleached. It just took all the color right out of him.”

On the grounds at Seattle’s Boeing Field on that day in July of 1985, speaker after speaker extolled the strength of the B-17s and the courage of the men who flew them. The chaplain led a prayer for comrades in all the crews who never returned: “They shall remain forever young in our minds and hearts, as we get older.” And thousands of aging vets from the bomber groups stood silently, used fingers to wipe tears away from behind bifocal glasses, put arms around the shoulders of women with tinted hair and hugged them a little closer.

The debacle of Brunswick was only a minor setback in the ongoing pummeling of the “Vaterland.” In late February of ’44 came “Big Week,” six continuous days of raids in which 75 percent of the factories producing 90 percent of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft were destroyed. Shortly after, in early March, came the “Big B” – the first appearance of Flying Fortresses in a major raid on Berlin. It was on this mission that Red Morgan was blown into the sky, and his parachute blossomed over Germany along with hundreds of other white chutes as American crews bailed out of their broken planes.

More than 300 B-17s went down in these raids alone. But American war plane production was turning out 5000 planes a month – including the 16 new B-17s that Seattle’s Boeing plant rolled out each day – and a high count of those nimble Mustangs, fighters that could escort entire missions. And so, yellow German parachutes also began to blossom in unprecedented numbers. The Germans lost 600 fighters during Big Week and Big B. From July to April of 1944, 1000 Luftwaffe pilots were removed from the war, and as these were the most experienced and highly trained, their loss could be ill-afforded.

By D-Day, June 6, General Dwight Eisenhower was able to reassure the Allied invaders, “If you see a plane, it will be ours,” and he was 99.9 percent right. Of the thousands of aircraft over the Normandy beachhead, only two belonged to the Luftwaffe. That pair of FW 190s bravely made a single strafing run, then vanished. Subsequently, throughout Europe, a bitter joke began to make the rounds of the German Army. “If the aircraft you see are camouflaged, they’re British; if silver, American; and if they aren’t there at all, they’re German.”

Escorted flights of B-17s went on to pound other targets, including Axis transportation and oil facilities. But for some, the war in the air could end before the war did. Soon after the epic raids of Big Week and Big B, Mickey Foster found he had survived all 25 of his missions. In early June, he went home.

Rather than fly a “war-weary” back to the States, he opted to sail on an ocean liner, one with soldiers’ initials carved all over its hand-rails, and 24-hour poker games romping along below decks.

Though he returned as a hero to a grateful nation, Foster’s experience reveals that post-traumatic stress was not something invented after Vietnam.

“The war really changed me forever. I didn’t do much flying after I got out; it made me too goddamned nervous. I was offered a job flying for an airline between New York and Miami, but I didn’t feel up to being a pilot, flying with all those lives behind me anymore. Just said the hell with it, I’ll go back to driving a logging truck. If I make a mistake, I can’t kill those logs.

“Shortly after I got back, me and the wife went to a movie in Santa Monica called `The Memphis Belle,’ about the first bomber to finish its missions. Suddenly they cut to a scene where all this damn flak was coming up, so thick you could walk on it. I must’ve still been flak-happy . . . I jumped right to my feet and hollered `Flak! ‘ at the top of my lungs. Christ, I think everybody in the theater turned around in their seats and looked at me.”

Nearly 13,000 B-17s were built. Today, perhaps 10 of those planes, worldwide, remain airworthy. Three of them thundered into Seattle for Boeing’s memorial ceremony. For a few minutes of flight time, Red Morgan got to take the controls of one, the Confederate Air Force’s “Sentimental Journey.” It was the first time he’d been in a B-17 cockpit since he had been shot down over Berlin, 40 years before.

He sat straight and proud for the take-off, and upon landing, he emerged beaming from the nose hatch. “I just died and went to heaven!” he said. “It was amazing, terrific! We loved this plane.” He patted the fuselage. “It still flies as easy as rolling a baby carriage down a sidewalk.”

Well over 100,000 men once flew on B-17 crews.

Approximately 4000 of them and their wives made it up to the celebration in Seattle. They streamed around the vintage planes, touching them, excitedly swapping stories as memories came rushing back. Then, munching upon the fried chicken lunch that Boeing had provided, they went to sit under a sun that bounced bright rays off the distant profile of Mount Rainier.

They heard speeches by Lieutenant General “Moose” Hardin and General Curtis LeMay extolling their bravery and urging them to support the present administration’s arms buildup. As they listened and applauded, the veterans sat among the hulking buildings of Boeing, now a vast corporation with a hand in nearly every major military project in the works, including the B-1 and Stealth bombers, “Star Wars” gear and the MX and Midgetman missiles. From aggregate sales of $493 million at the height of World War II, Boeing’s gross income has soared beyond $10 billion, making it an armaments empire with a social and industrial momentum apparently quite difficult to reverse – unless the country begins paying arms manufacturers not to make weapons, the way it pays farmers not to grow wheat.

“No one who has really seen combat ever wants to see it again,” Red Morgan said. “I think the arms build-up is absolutely essential to prevent a future war. We can’t indulge ourselves in the luxury of waiting until war starts to prepare for it. The reason Hitler got off to such a rolling start is because no one was really ready to stop him.”

Other vets have other ideas about how to prevent another global conflict. Mickey Foster thought it should be obvious that war has become obsolete. If people want to be titillated by war adventures, he said, they can dredge up stories from World War II, not try to re-enact them. Re-enacting them is not possible anyway, he asserted. Instead of fighting man against fighting man, the next war will feature automatic engines of destruction aimed against all the civilian populations of the Earth. The black seeds of destruction sown over London, Dresden and Hiroshima may sprout a sequel incomparably more hideous.

“All that stuff about the joy of battle is horseshit,” said Foster. “We had a job to do – that was it. I was damn glad I could fight the air war rather than the ground war. That was the only point at which gladness came into it.

“Modern war has gotten way past the point of being a sane alternative. What we could do instead is just build a wall. Then, if we have to have a war, we can send all our politicians to the top of the wall, and they can punch each other in the nose. The first side that gets a man knocked off, loses. And that would be it.”

Deadlines and Dan Rather

Dan Rather.

October 8, 2009

“Every reporter worth his or her notepad is a sleuth at heart. Paul McHugh brings this truth to life with crackling suspense and a true, ink-stained veteran’s eye for the newsroom.”

Click to read how Paul McHugh won an endorsement from Dan Rather for his novel.

Dan Rather, TV anchor and newsman

Murdering the California Coast
Rick Kleffel, Bookotron.com 03/08/2010

It’s come to this; the fate of newspapers is itself news, consuming more and more of the ever-shrinking number of pages that are willingly delivered to your front yard every morning. At least, I hope they are. I truly start every day by reading The San Francisco Chronicle while I eat a hot breakfast. This assures me both the mental a physical wherewithal to make it through the next 16 hours.

Paul McHugh spent more than 20 years writing and editing for The San Francisco Chronicle. One might truly say that he knows where the bodies are buried. And, given that knowledge, it’s bracing to know that his first novel, ‘Deadlines’ (Low Coast Press / Cypress House ; February 13, 2010 ; $16.95) is a mystery featuring a grizzled veteran news reporter who is bestirred into action when an unburied body shows up on a typically scenic California shoreline. But there’s more at work here than land-grabs and real-estate scams. The real mystery to be solved is what is happening to America’s newspapers.

McHugh’s approach to mystery writing is — not surprisingly — journalistic. You start with the murder of a land-use activist. Sebastian Palmer is the young reporter in pursuit of her story, and thus, the killers as well. He befriends Elle Jatobá — who hopes to become a cop — and the two of them begin poking into the Cornu Point problem under the disinterested eye of Colm MacCay, the grizzled veteran who bestirs himself when Palmer ends up comatose. Clearly, there is more going on at Cornu Point than habitat preservation. Real estate is not priceless. But the reporters looking into the death of Beverly Bancroft will face all the perils of the investigation with none of the powers of the police. And the cops themselves are not so hot on the trail.

McHugh brings three levels of authenticity to ‘Deadlines.’ Narrated in the first person by Colm MacCay, ‘Deadlines’ offers an authentic newsman’s voice to tell the story. The prose is not that of a breathless or brainless thriller, but rather, that of a man who has seen and written about a lifetime of San Francisco news. ‘Deadlines’ reads like a particularly gripping newspaper story where real-estate speculation and land-use issues escalate into murder. It’s fascinating to see events from the newsman’s eyes, and then read not just his words, but the words he writes for his newspaper. It’s a neat meta-fictional trick. And McHugh knows how to pace his story as well, as journalistic piece, which means that ‘Deadlines’ is not just another cheesy page-turner, but a welcome insight into how newspapers themselves are written.

The meat of the matter here — the buying and selling of the California coastline — is also something of which McHugh knows whereof he speaks. In his years working for The San Francisco Chronicle, McHugh himself investigated events that bore no small similarity to those in his novel. He knows the political, business and environmental climate well enough to create crime fiction where the motives and emotional ties are authentic—and he knows how a veteran columnist would write of these events. And finally, McHugh has a front-row seat on the biggest mystery here, though many contend there is no mystery whatsoever when it comes to the Case of the Disappearing American Newspaper. We see what is happening from the inside, in an unvarnished portrait of the day-to-day issues that keep reporters’ feet on the street — and profits remain perpetually just around the corner. This is the kind of research that you just can’t accomplish in a couple of days (or for that matter, years) with search engines. And this is the kind of story that can best be told as fiction. If you need to read the facts of the matter, Id suggest subscribing to your local newspaper, before it too ends up as a story in another newspaper.

Rick Kleffel, Bookotron

 

“Paul McHugh’s new “novel of murder, conspiracy, and the media” is “Dead Lines,” which is set in San Francisco and environs, especially those nestled against the Pacific Ocean. Louis’, which overlooks the old Sutro Baths, is mentioned; also Duarte’s, down the road a spell in Pescadero.

“And also Tu Lan, just a block away from The Chronicle. McHugh worked here for 22 years, and the book, in his words, is not only a murder story but also a “celebration of what a newsroom is like when it’s running at full steam.” He’ll be at Book Passage in Corte Madera on February 13.”

Read more at S.F. Gate. . .

Leah Garchik, San Francisco Chronicle

“The themes of Paul McHugh’s companionable, rock-solid and soul-satisfying mystery ‘Deadlines’ could not be more modern and relevant. But it is his wonderful character, the has-been alcoholic newspaper columnist Colm MacCay, who will stay with you, and who channels McHugh’s considerable writing talent into a voice that surprises and delights with all the narrative panache of the classic Irish storyteller. ‘Deadlines’ is a superior story, not to be missed.”

John Lescroart, NY Times best-selling author

“With Deadlines, Paul McHugh nails the desperation of new-millennium newsrooms and the quirky crusaders of the Bay Area. He also has a lot of fun with the unlikely culprits in this land-and-money murder mystery. As you learn from very first page, Deadlines is not a ‘who’ done it but a ‘why and how will our heroes find out’ done it. The fact that those heroes are journalists, and that McHugh’s prose uses humor to great effect, are welcome twists indeed.”

Farai Chideya, Author, “Kiss the Sky” and “The Color of Our Future”

“People who love San Francisco and appreciate a good mystery will find Paul McHugh’s ‘Deadlines’ a page-turner with unforgettable characters and a realistic view of crime. Mchugh creates an eccentric figure who epitomizes an endangered species – a reporter who can connect the dots. My wife Beverly and I couldn’t put it down.

Sheriff Mike Hennessey, City and County of San Francisco

“A cheerful romp through quite serious territory.”

Tony Miksak, Words on Books

“I love Colm MacCay, the unlikely hard-drinking protagonist as much as I do David Skibbins’ bi-polar, tarot-card reading Warren Ritter. A big plus, too; revisiting San Francisco, Half Moon Bay and points south, places I know so well. But best of all is the story itself. I was riveted!”

Joel Crockett, Four-Eyed Frog Books

“Paul McHugh’s ‘Deadlines’ is an entertaining tale that concisely captures life in a big-city newsroom. In fact, this amusing novel is more than a murder mystery. It’s a portrait of metropolitan journalism amid its time of troubles.”

Pete Carey, San Jose Mercury News

Reviews

Reviews

August 11, 2010: SF Public Press, Leslie Guevarra
Book Review: Journalist spins riveting tale of murder and intrigue along the California coast.

August 6, 2010: The Monterey Herald
Paul McHugh will present his writing workshop “The Art of the Short Memoir” at 10 a.m. Aug. 29 at The Henry Miller Library in Big Sur.

August 5, 2010: The Modesto Bee, Nancy Soares
Through a Newsman’s Eyes Ex-Chronicle reporter treads familiar ground in ‘Deadlines’ . . . “a clever, funny, convincing book with descriptions that bring news in the Bay Area to life. The story fulfills two of the most crucial aspects of a good thriller: It’s unpredictable and it keeps the reader’s interest.”

May 13, 2010: The California Aggie, UC Davis
Writer Paul McHugh to give seminar in University Writing Program lecture seriesMarch 27, 2010: First Online Review
Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery

March 24, 2010: Mt. Shasta News story on “Deadlines” reading (April 1 from 6 to 8 p.m.).

March 4, 2010: Santa Cruz Sentinel story on Paul and Deadlines

February 26, 2010: Kayak surfers weigh in on “Deadlines”

February 28, 2010: Interview in The San Francisco Chronicle’s “96 Hour” section.

February 13, 2010: Photographs from the launch of DEADLINES at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

February 14, 2010: Review of Deadlines by Pete Carey, San Jose Mercury News

Archives: DeeJays

Paul McHugh comments:

I’ll always feel grateful to the poets, musicians, actors, singers, potters, painters and other creative types that made Mendocino a counter-cultural mecca during the period I lived there, 1976-1983. One queen of alternate style in town was Liz Helenchild, a.k.a. “Late-Nite Liz” – her on-air handle. I won’t burn space here recapitulating the story below. I’ll just say, our community radio station KMFB circulated mental and spiritual lifeblood. Liz was a night nurse who helped that happen. I’m posting this story (it originally ran in the Mendocino A-and-E magazine in 1984) not only to celebrate Liz, but a magical era in that area. Also to suggest what FM radio once was, and what it could be again. On my kayak trip down the North Coast in 2005, I found a renegade Wall Street financier trying to recreate the phenomenon of community radio in the Arcata-Eureka-Ferndale region. It can be done! Here’s how.

The Swan Song of Late-Nite Liz

It felt like your friend was on the air, keeping you informed. There wasn’t any of the formality of the professional radio announcer. She was family.”

Sue Carrell, innkeeper

There’s a progression to the music she plays. You arrive somewhere, after you listen to Late-Nite Liz for a while.”

Cindy Frank, baker

We’d be wiped out after a hard day of fishing, come in to anchor in some lonesome cove, ice down the fish, then switch on the FM while cooking dinner. And that warm and sexy voice would be right there. Liz always was a real bright spot in the fisherman’s day.”

Nat Bingham, salmon troller

I’d tune her in later on, on my way home from the restaurant. Only time I’d ever listen to the radio. I really wish she weren’t leaving. I wish Liz could stay on the air.”

David Jones, restaurateur

It’s 10 p.m. in the Pygmy Forest. Inside a small concrete building with light spilling from its windows, a pretty woman  who looks like a beatnik version of Snow White (sandals, black pants, black turtleneck, purple shawl, big silver ear hoops, and a snow-and-rose face framed by luxuriant black curls) slips on headphones and leans unshyly toward the mike.

“Hah,” she drawls. “This is Late-Nite Liz with nothing much to do but dish it up for you. . . so let me hear what you want to hear. Ah’ll try to stir it in and spin it out, here on tonight’s edition of Wild Hair Radio.”

The Pygmy Forest is one of the few natural coastal areas suitable for erection of a radio broadcast mast. It’s an unusual stretch of low, bonsai cypress and scrub hidden among towering groves of fir, pine and redwood, midway between the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. Late-Nite Liz is Liz Helenchild, an unusual infusion of Texas talent, who in six short years  became the North Coast’s closest thing to a homegrown media star.

Unfortunately, she’s a star going into apparent eclipse. Which is why I make myself present at the station during two of her final shows. It’s a last chance to see some of her magic in the making, magic of a sort now going increasingly rare.

Disc jockeys were the natural heroes of an entire American generation. They were the ones who knew what was about to happen, way back when rock-n-roll was a single obscure station way down at the end of the AM dial. They led us song by song through a change in consciousness, and did it with music that provided catalysts and then anthems of our times.

There are very few deejays around now who could fulfill that job description, or who could still cop to its sense of mission. Liz is one.  In fact, she’s probably a phenomenon even more unusual than that. Somewhat sheltered in Mendocino, like a flower in the wilderness, from vicissitudes sweeping through the broadcast industry, she represents a post-graduate form of a largely vanished breed. Which makes her disenfranchisement from the air that much more the end of an era.

Seconds after Liz makes her pitch for requests, the control panel winks with lights as phone lines fill with incoming calls. She answers each one graciously, as if she had all the time in the world. Then suddenly she’s up and darting along the shelves of the record library, pulling out the selections that will launch themes for the evening of airplay. She cues up these cuts on the station’s big Technics turntables. Then she dashes off to rip teletype sheets out of the AP wire machine, and rapidly edits them into a newscast by ripping out the best bits with a sharp steel trowel. It’s a one-woman act, and she has it timed to the micro-second. Hair flying about her face like a brunette whirlwind, she slides into her seat with no time to spare, and turns up the potentiometer on the next cut just as the last begins to fade. It’s a seamless performance. If you happened to be cruising in your car down Highway One with the radio tuned to KMFB-FM, you might also swear that it was effortless. Not hardly.

“I guess you could describe me as kind of a classical music beatnik in high school,” Liz says, as the turntables spin. “There weren’t too many of us. We were all classed as deviants. For me, it was a combination of the wild hair that I have, and this smart mouth that I have. And another part was a decision I made in the fourth grade, that since I was never going to be one of those fluff-headed popular people, I might as well make an art form out of being different.

“I used to see Janis Joplin around at folk sings and such. That was the great education for me in Texas, by the way, sitting around too much drinking coffee and listening to all the great minds rave. After I heard Joplin sing, I thought, now this is a lady I can identify with.”

Liz acquired a degree (anthropology), took over a night jazz show at a college radio station, worked as a fashion illustrator and lab tech – and then decided it was high time to break out of Texas.

“People there would get locked into roles with each other, and if you ever tried to leave your role, they’d just rear up and squash you back into it. Actually, though, the truth is that I got kicked out of Texas because I don’t drink beer. The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce found out about that, and had me escorted to the border.”

Liz found a new niche for her vocal talents as a dispatcher for Berkeley’s alternative transport system, Taxi Unlimited. Then she was invited to visit Mendocino by a friend, and fell in love at first sight with the town. She quickly moved up and in, attached herself to the Uncommon Good (a popular coffee house of the 70’s), and dove into the local music scene. Poet Bill Bradd, after finding out about her earlier broadcast experience, asked her to run the board at KMFB during a variety show. They concocted her moniker, Late-Nite Liz, just before air time, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Time to go back to the mike.

“We have a lost dawg near road 409,” Liz says, transmitting the bulletin that came in on one of her listener calls. “Apparently, it’s a male dawg in love. He slipped his collar and took off into the lonesome night. He’s a tan hound who answers – or quite probably just now does not answer – to the name of Raffles.”

Five nights a week for the past six years, Liz’s wit and wisdom, cozily wrapped in a soft Texas drawl for their voyage out into the darkness, have been sent through this microphone, up past the flashing red lights of the broadcast tower, and slung across the valleys and ridges of the Coast, flying north to the wildness of Whale Gulch, inland to hills above Willits and Boonville, and south – depending on atmospheric conditions – as far as Point Arena.

Her most devout listeners have been hermetic cabin-dwellers who must get power for their radios from solar panels, or batteries bought on their monthly trips to town. For them, Liz is legendary, an avatar of the airwaves, often their only steady link to the World Outside. For others, closer in and possessing telephones, Liz serves as an amiable switchboard, connecting folks like semi-retired Cat Mother members, Judy Mayhan, and ex-Byrd Gene Parsons to their still-loyal clientele in the region, and also running the tapes of worthy newcomers like Lawrence Bullock and Charles Tyler. Prior to their gigs at local clubs, Liz brings locals and visiting groups on the air for spontaneous interviews and live performances.

It’s all part of what she calls, “creative community radio, including local musicians, topical songs. . . putting some kind of appropriate soundtrack together for the movie we seem to be shooting out here. Community radio is not all that common in the nation right now. But it could be. It should be. It’s a real alternative to all the formula stuff you’re starting to hear.”

The musical realms Liz plunders to assemble her sets are not limited to local music, or historic rock, contemporary sounds, jazz, or blues. . . and a case could be made that she actually doesn’t feel limited by anything. If the station disc and tape libraries don’t happen to meet her needs, well, she’s famed for raiding the record collections of friends. On a given evening, depending on her mood and the general psychic weather, her listeners could be treated to anything from Bessie Smith to Tibetan monastery bells, from tapes of obscure Grateful Dead concerts to the latest Michael Jackson. During a recent lunar eclipse, when she continued for hours past her customary midnight sign-off in order to “drum the light back,” she found herself laying a Keith Jarret piano solo over Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue.

“They meshed wonderfully,” she says.

Such rogue inspirations are all part of what Liz calls the Joys of Segue.

“It’s always amazing how it comes to me what the next pieces of music will be. There is a certain musical logic, and if you’re working a theme, finding the next selection can be pretty straightforward. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had something cued up on the turntable, and just a second before it plays, someone calls up and requests it.

“Sometimes I get a more subtle feeling. As if all this electronic gear receives as well as it broadcasts, so as I send out the signal, there’s a subtle undercurrent flowing back in towards me. One time I got a wild hair to play a Tchaikovsky violin concerto in the middle of the show. That seemed plenty strange, but since it was a strong flash, I did it. A month later, I’m over in the hills, and I find a person who’d been practicing that concerto all day, learning to play it. The version I ran was the same she first remembered hearing as a child. She said it was an amazing experience to hear it over the air that night, as she was getting ready to fall asleep.”

Springing from whatever well of inspirational association, Liz’s selected cuts are laid snugly against each other and sent out into the mind of the listener, there to reassemble as a glowing matrix of connections, a slowly spinning gestalt of the most interesting sounds humans have committed to shellac and cellulose.

“Vibeskeeper,” Liz calls her job, playing with language in a way that delights her fans but would probably turn William Safire apopleptic. “I’m the person sitting next to the jukebox with a roll of quarters, rocking the whole bar.”

She relaxes somewhat from the fervor of her crank-up pace, and takes a moment to do a few stretches in front of the control panel. Besides broadcast, dance is a ruling passion; she’s a regular at all sorts of dance classes and performances in the Mendocino area.

Things are going smoothly, but this final night of Wild Hair Radio doesn’t take off and soar into hyperspace until Liz reads a news item about the death of the “Lady In Black,” a fan who brought roses to Valentino’s tomb for 28 years. That prompts a spin of Yoko Ono’s “I’m Your Angel” which segues into “You Got to Go to Sleep Alone,” by Rosalie Sorrels, and so on and on, into a long musical meditation on loss and faithful love. The phone lights wink on like fireflies. As Liz dances over to answer them, I think, what station manager in his right mind would ever dream of letting this woman go?”

The freewheeling format of Liz’s show found its genesis in the days when the station was owned by Steve Ryan, a young tycoon whose control over the station’s format and bottom line were neither quite absolute. His main concerns were that the shows be bright and creative, and the gear kept in good shape for his own jazz shows, broadcast on Sunday afternoons. Consequently, a wide range of talent in quest of a mike found airtime at KMFB. Some of that talent swelled and collapsed from the overdose of opportunity. Liz’s talent just kept blossoming.

But then the station was sold to George Anderson, a radio pro from Los Angeles, whose regard for the bottom line was visceral. He soon found out that his new station was anathema to a conservative portion of the North Coast’s business community, who thought it catered to leftists, artists and hippies. After first trying to change the station’s image by making minor trims, Anderson began lopping off branches. He explored automating, running pre-recorded programs from syndicates. Some members of the community responded by exploring a consumer boycott of the station’s sponsors. By the time the dust had settled, Liz Helenchild was one of the few members of the old-time KMFB cadre who remained. But she was not fated to remain long. She posed a unique problem: How can you format what you cannot pigeonhole?

“I didn’t fire her,” Lindy Peters, the station’s general manager tells me carefully. He professes himself acutely aware of the Liz’s great popularity on the Coast. “And Rodger Layng, the programming director, didn’t fire her. All we said is, this is what is happening, and she wouldn’t do it. We wanted to go for a light sound. Familiar songs, mellow stuff. Liz played a lot of mainstream music, but it was unbalanced by all the experimental things she did.

“Other than that, I have no complaints about Liz. She reads well, has a great voice, knows music, and is very organized. But we wanted to develop a softer, more consistent sound. You know, if the Reverend Sun Myung Moon buys this station, and he pays me to be general manager, then Moonie music is what I’ll put on the air. You have to roll with punches in this business,” Lindy concludes. “You have to go with management.”

But Liz refuses to fit the Big Chill profile. Since Wild Hair Radio’s flights of fancy are increasingly being cropped short by the new management, Liz is gradually permitting herself to be encouraged to leave.

“The real spirit and intent of KMFB as I knew and loved it has been slowly and thoroughly strangled,” she sighs. “The last year-and-a-half has just been the meditation on the rotting corpse. These last few shows I get to do are only the scattering of the final dry bones.

“But, everything changes. This is only the ‘disappearing’ part of the cycle. It’s only my particular attachment that makes me sad. It’s a shame, but I think really good radio is being meatballed and wonderbreaded out of existence. Not just in this town of Mendocino, but in the country at large. Go anywhere, and it’s the same freeway signs and fast-food joints. Turn on the radio, and it’s the same 15 songs. The programming is all by formula. A lot of the owners have apparently gotten so they just see radio as an advertising medium, a money-making machine. They don’t give a damn about the product. There’s not a whole lot of interest left in using radio as a vehicle for important communications.

“So. Do you leave your mad lover, or do you stay for the sake of the children? I guess you stay as long as you can. Then go.”

As I listen to the last hour of her last show, its seamless web of sometimes obscure but always appropriate cuts seems to be Liz at her finest. The expanding musical matrix is a paean to the pangs of separation. The emotions mixed into this audio cocktail are a blend of humor, grief, and a transcendent relief.

Hoyt Axton’s “Bony Fingers” leads into “This Could Be The Last Time” by the Stones. Then comes Pete Seeger’s a capella, “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood,” Vaughan William’s with “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” Geof Morgan’s, “Finally Letting It Go,” next Leonard Cohen’s, “Sisters of Mercy,” and “Little Jewels,” by Gene Parsons.

Up to this point in the story, I’ve written about all of this in the present tense, in order to provide the reader with a sense of radio’s immediacy. But right here, it’s appropriate for us to shift into the past tense.

Another person who listened carefully to Liz’s final show that night was Karin Faulkner, co-founder of the Rain Straight Down poetry collective.

“I sat at home reading,” Faulkner said. “Because I knew I had to read or do something besides just listen, or I would’ve started crying. That show was a historic moment for the area, something important to witness.

“For me, she has always been the connecting force to everything that’s been going on here on the Coast. She is that medium. We don’t have anything else that does what Liz does. I’ve always been in such awe of her integrity. It’s seemed to me that if everything came down to that Great Apocalyptic End, we could keep it together through Liz’s radio show. I can see her at the mike, helping us to make it through. . .

“The next-to-last song she played was something like, ‘Bright morning stars are rising, day is a-breaking in my soul.’ Then she gave this very cool sign-off. I thought it was a recording or something. But then she came on the mike in a very warm voice, thanking everyone for all their help over the years. Then she turned up the volume of the song she’d been playing as background, under her voice. It was, “An Angel Watches Over Me,” by black gospel singers.

“I glanced at my friend, feeling a little bothered because he hadn’t said anything for a long time, and I saw he had tears running down his cheeks. We just looked at each other. When that song was over, that was it. The radio went silent, except for some scratchy static.

“The silence was really profound.”

NB: Liz and KMFB parted ways for more than a decade, 1984 to 1995. The station meandered through owners and operating philosophies. Then Liz was invited back. As of this posting, in December of 2008, she’s on the air with the “B-side Herself” radio show, 8 p.m.-midnight, Tuesdays through Thursdays. If you find yourself up in the Mendocino area, just tune her in. She’s at 92.7 on your FM dial.