Monday, October 28, 2013


“You’re from Needles?”

“Yeah, so? Are you going to make jokes about my home town?”

No, I wasn’t. I met kids from all over California in my college days; most didn’t want to hear crap about their roots.

Yet, I always wondered: is Needles, California so named because of the intense prickly heat, the proliferation of cactus, or what? Hot it definitely is. Death Valley is the all-time champion for record heat in California (and likely the entire USA), but sandwiched between the Mojave and the Colorado River, Needles is the hottest town. They clocked a record 125 degrees one July day in 2005.

But that wasn’t my first thought. For me, Needles conjures up an entirely different and decidedly unfunny image.

When I was a child in South San Francisco, my family would travel most summers to Colorado (my father’s birthplace) and Missouri (my mother’s). We’d travel east on US 40 through Donner Pass (which later became I-80) and return by the infamous Route 66 through Needles.

Five kids in one station wagon for days at a time with no air conditioning, just a burlap bag strapped the front grill for cold water. Did I mention no air conditioning?

On one such trip, we crossed back into California and climbed the hill out of the Colorado River gorge to the flat Mojave plateau.

“How hot is it?” I whined, knowing that this was the hottest spot of our trip. It didn’t help that we were stuck in stop-and-go traffic just outside of town with nothing but more desert ahead. Soon enough, we saw flashing red lights that signaled a traffic accident. A California Highway Patrolman was perched on a motorcycle giving instructions to each driver as they came alongside.

“There’s a pretty bad accident just ahead, ma’am,” The uniformed officer growled at my mom from behind his dark shades. “We’re only letting one car go at a time, so change over to the left lane. Do you have any kids in there?” 

“Only three today,” Mom said.

“Well, you’ll need to have them hide their eyes when you pass the accident—it’s pretty disturbing for small children.”

My sister immediately covered me with a jacket, and I pretended to cooperate while our Chevy wagon inched forward. When I heard my mother gasp, I whipped off the jacket and looked out the side window. I wish I hadn’t. When you think of the word “decapitated,” you might think of Marie Antoinette and the guillotine.  I think of a body behind the steering wheel of a mangled Cadillac being extracted from the underside of a semi-truck.

“Omigawd!” My sister hissed, looking at the carnage, then at me. “Did you see that bloody mess?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, stupefied by the crippling the 120-degree heat, paralyzed by the sight of a headless woman in a fur coat pinned in the driver’s seat.

“She must've taken her eyes off the road and didn't see that truck until it was too late.”

I wiped my brow and said the first thing that came to my ten year-old mind: “She was probably adjusting her air conditioner…”
The eponymous Needles that gave the town its name

Friday, October 25, 2013


Cousin Elly, Aunt Milly and me

Milly and Clyde Perrine were high school sweethearts and the eternal couple. Clyde met his buddy Ed’s kid sister in high school in San Francisco and immediately offered to carry her books. Idaho-born Clyde joined the Army during World War II, but he never forgot that girl, even while he manned a tank in the Battle of the Bulge.
Milly's favorite soldier, Clyde

They married in San Francisco in 1946 and after a few short years relocated to the northeast corner of Oregon, near Clyde’s native Idaho. They were married for more than sixty years, produced two marvelous daughters, created innumerable friendships and even co-founded a church. They are all-American icons, essential Oregonians, my aunt and uncle.
Milly and Clyde on their wedding day in 1946

Okay, Milly is technically my second cousin; Milly, her brother and my dad were all raised together like siblings in San Francisco near where I grew up, loving her as my only paternal aunt. Sadly, Uncle Clyde passed on more than a year ago. It’s easy to forget that Clyde’s gone, his spirit remains with the family in so many ways.

Clyde and his granddaughter Melanie January 1, 2012

Last month, there was a weekend of celebration in honor of Aunt Milly’s 90th birthday. Woo hoo! Milly’s got many of the expected aches and pains for her age, but she’s still the same good ol’ gal that won Clyde’s heart seven decades ago.

Aunt Milly and her son-in-law, another Ed!

Milly may not be riding high in the saddle these days, but she’s definitely sharp as a tack. She could still sing the Welsh lullabies that her grandmother (my great-grandmother) learned as a little girl in Wales before immigrating to the USA in 1865. Sadly, I don’t know any Welsh myself; I last heard that lullaby when my great-grandma sang it for us at her 100th birthday celebration in 1963. There’s some longevity in them genes, to be sure.

Sumpter Valley, Oregon
Milly’s celebration was pretty low-key, split between her Bow and Arrow Ranch in Oregon’s bucolic Sumpter Valley and a friend’s home in Baker City. There were neighbors, church friends, townsfolk, her daughters, some of the grandkids, a couple of great-grandbabies, and a passel of Perrines (Clyde’s side of the family); close to one hundred celebrants in all.
Aunt Milly in her purple raiment, with the family at her 90th
The view from the party
The old house at the Bow and Arrow Ranch

When the weekend was over, Milly and some of her kin stayed to close up the ranch. Winter’s coming and the Sumpter Valley gets quite a bit of snow. Milly is back in an assisted living facility in central Oregon. My aunt is a bit sad to be 200 miles from the beloved ranch where she raised her family and “kept tabs on Clyde” for more than half a century.  The good news is her daughter Elly and granddaughter Laurie take good care of her, visiting just about every day—and dear ol’ Clyde is always nestled close in Milly’s heart.  

My wife and I visiting Aunt Milly in 2012

Saturday, October 19, 2013

LA Stories

“Isn’t it nice that the kind of people that prefer Los Angeles live there?”
                                             ~ Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle

True San Franciscans—old San Franciscans—are supposed to have nothing but disdain for all things Angeleno. I don’t, I like Los Angeles, I enjoy myself whenever I’m there. Okay, so do I have some reservations about LA, but I channel all that bad karma toward the Dodgers. Them, I hate. Dodger-hating is wonderfully cathartic.

My first visit to LA began the day they discovered Marilyn’s body. Our family of seven managed to have a great time, once we got past the shock of Miss Monroe’s suicide. I swam at Santa Monica, visited Graumann’s Chinese Theater, went to Marineland in Palos Verdes, hit all the rides in Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm.

Then we visited the Movieland Wax Museum. Apparently, their wax figure of Marilyn Monroe had just arrived. In a macabre attempt to capitalize on her headline-grabbing demise, they had torn the front off her packing crate and dressed her in a strapless sequined cocktail dress with a white fur stole—still standing in her coffin-like crate. It was a chilling visage, especially for a seven year-old. It was years before I returned to LaLa Land.

In college and my early twenties, I made many new friends from Southern California. One particular friend, Bob, lived in Marina Del Rey near LAX. He wanted to get to know San Francisco better, and I had to admit I needed to get beyond the SoCal amusement parks. We discovered easy-to-get standby flights between LAX and SFO costing less than $20 each way. I became a minor league jet-setter.

Bob and I developed a system: on alternate months, I would spend one weekend with Bob in LA, then he would come to San Francisco the next month for my famous tours. Bob showed me Griffith Park, Venice, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport and Pasadena. We attended football games at the LA Coliseum and made an appearance at dreaded Dodger Stadium.  I discovered art at the Getty Villa and LACMA, fossils at the LaBrea Tar Pits, even Magic Mountain. (We cannot recall all the details of parties in Westwood, Venice and the Hollywood Hills).

“I think I’m beginning to really like LA,” I told a friend over drinks at one San Francisco watering hole. “I’ve got lots of friends down there now, and there’s always something new and trendy…”

“Merely pleasant islands floating in a sea of shit, drowning all the star-struck Wanna-Be’s,” he said. Okay, the air was uniformly brown and the freeways painful to travel, but I thought that might be overstating it a bit. Though I had to admit most of my friends did aspire to careers in 'the (Motion Picture) Industry.' Some were even gainfully employed in entertainment.  

Years later, my oldest son matriculated at UCLA and we moved to Bakersfield, only 90 minutes to the north of campus. After one football game at the Rose Bowl (and many hours in LA gridlock fighting our way back and forth between Pasadena and Westwood) my wife and I found ourselves with a free Saturday evening in LA.  We headed to the nearby Getty Center, the arts complex perched on a hilltop overlooking the LA Basin.

We emerged from their tram at the top of hill and were amazed at the beauty of the Getty’s dramatic setting. The tasteful architecture, plazas, fountains, sculptures and gardens were exquisite, surely—but then there was the view. 

The night before it had rained, and the air was washed clean and clear. Now, as afternoon slipped into rosy twilight, Los Angeles shone like a crystalline vision of what it could be.

I inhaled the fresh-scrubbed air and drank in the incredible Technicolor vistas. From the snow-dusted Mount Baldy to the northeast to the wooded promontory of Palos Verdes to the south of me, Los Angeles spread like a star-studded quilt that stretched from sharp-edged mountains to the boundless sea. For the first time, I saw the promise of Tinseltown bedecked in its finest raiment; at that moment, I felt what the pioneers, the dreamers and the schemers all must have believed: Los Angeles could be a city of angels.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


 Krakatoa, East of Java sounded like a cool name for a movie. It was a major box office hit in 1969, the year I turned fourteen. Life at fourteen was definitely a mixed bag.  My brother was off in Vietnam, my two oldest sisters were boys crazy (‘nuff said) and other older sister was booked as a babysitter around the neighborhood seven days a week. Who could blame her? Staying home was no picnic:  the family business was struggling, finances were precarious, my father was always “working late,” and my parents were, like Vietnam, in constant state of undeclared war.

Movies were a great diversion from the angst of my daily adolescent travails. There were westerns (True Grit, The Wild Bunch), costume dramas (Anne of the Thousand Days), gritty contemporary New York (Midnight Cowboy) and the irreverent romp Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But for an adolescent teenager looking for purely escapist adventure/disaster flick, the movie of that year was Krakatoa.

The name “Krakatoa” was strong, powerful, elusive, and exotic. “East of Java…” evoked the South Pacific, warm waters, palm trees, beautiful natives, the melody of foreign tongues and Polynesia rhythms. Hmmm. But was the story of an exotic island erupting in one of the biggest explosions ever known a true tale or Hollywood fiction? Fact or fantasy, I was okay either way—but I needed to know. The teaser in the Chronicle made the film sound like a Polynesian version of the Atlantis legend, so it could go either way.

I got out my encyclopedia and looked up the island. Yes, it was a true story. In 1883 the island volcano blew sky high, tsunamis killed nearly 40,000 people. The mere sound of the explosion is reputedly the loudest in recorded history, audible up to 3,000 miles from the volcano. Cool!

I got out my atlas, and searched for the island to the east of Java. It was nowhere to be found. Of course not, it blew up a hundred years ago. I went to the library to solve the riddle: Krakatoa was WEST of Java, not east. How could the studio make such an obvious mistake? My faith in Hollywood was dashed.

The first reviews of the movie pointed out the error. The simple mistake itself got a great deal of press—was this what cynical producers were looking for? Free press based upon a movie mistake right in the title? Arguably so. I saw the movie. The story was classic disaster flick material, not too different from the 1961 potboiler Atlantis, the Lost Continent. It was a satisfactory vehicle for 1969's state-of-the-art special effects. 

But Krakatoa is WEST of Java. True, the extant title sounds more romantic, but it was WRONG. Is this how the real world worked? Whether it be in politics, family matters, business or the movies—wasn’t truth what really mattered? For the first time, I suspected not. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Jack Kerouac

So you think you know Jack Kerouac, "Father of the Beats," author of the Fifties seminal novel/memoir On the Road?  So did I. San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood was ground zero for the Beat Generation.

Maynard G. Krebs
Beatniks, as we called them,  were an oddity that my father made fun of, that main stream media mocked. Are you old enough to remember Maynard G. Krebs on TV's Dobie Gillis? If you are, you know what I mean. Smoke-filled coffee houses filled with grim wastrels in
goatees and berets spouting incomprehensible poetry, right? Not a very pretty picture. Even poor old Bob Denver got tired of the beatnik persona, upgrading to Gilligan on that eponymous castaway island...

San Francisco columnist Herb Caen dubbed the Beats "beatniks" in the era of the Soviet Sputnik as a way to paint the budding counter-culture movement with a Red brush. Beats like Kerouac hated the term and never used it.

His real name was Jean-Louis Kerouac, born to French Canadian ex-patriots in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was a football star who broke his leg playing for Columbia University, ending his athletic career. Jack turned his energies to the literary movement blossoming in New York City alongside fellow Columbia students Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr. Ginsberg introduced him to other soon-to-be-famous writers such as William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso.  Allen Ginsberg also introduced Kerouac to bad boy icon Neal Cassady and they all fled to San Francisco.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac

Kerouac and Cassady would develop one of the most famous "bromances" in American literary culture. Their travels and sexcapades of the late Forties were fictionalized by Kerouac many times over, but most significantly in 1957's On the Road; Kerouac portrays himself as Sal Paradise and Cassady as Dean Moriarity. Earlier this year, a movie version of On the Road was released with great critical reviews but only modest commercial success. I thought it was wonderful. Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart are the love interests (and in this movie, Kristen Stewart actually can act:

I was researching the back story for the protagonist in my own novel when I first began to seriously consider the Beat generation and their effect on American culture. My attitude began to melt in the face of the incredible strength, creativity and life stories of these real-life characters. Iconic literary works emerged  from this group of outcasts who were trying to carve out a place in post-war American society for alternative thinkers. Through the Red Scare McCarthy Era and the conformity of Eisenhower's America they persisted to live, love and write about their march to the beats of many different drummers.

Earlier this afternoon, I convinced my wife and another couple to catch the finale of the Carmel Film Festival. The film was the cinematic depiction of Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur. It was interesting, disturbing, stimulating, upsetting and enlightening.

Jack Kerouac, like his pal Neal Cassady, had personal demons that he attempted to drown in alcohol and other drugs. Neither man survived the attempt; Neal died at 42 in 1968, Jack Kerouac died the following year at the age of 47. Their lives were truncated by self-destructive tendencies, leaving behind a trail of broken hearts and shattered dreams. Yet many from around the world are still haunted by the legacy of Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beats. Books are written, movies are produced, college students read his books, and San Francisco has memorialized him with a street paved in literary quotations.

The next time you are in San Francisco, take a stroll down to the intersection of Columbus and Broadway, where North Beach. meets Chinatown. You'll be standing in front of City Lights Bookstore, Kerouac's favorite haunt in San Francisco, a true icon of that or any other era. Walk through the crowded stacks on three floors of eclectic books. You'll see the Beat Museum across the street to the east, and two of Kerouac's famously favorite watering holes, just across Jack Kerouac Street, Tosca and Vesuvio. Step on in and have a drink in Jack's memory. Say a toast to those writers who have given their all in the name of their craft; their words live on.

Jean-Louis "Jack" Kerouac 1922~1969

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Istanbul was Constantinople

Istanbul is one of the most exotic and romantic cities in the world. How could it not be? It is the only city in the world that straddles two continents (Europe and Asia). It is perched at the mouth of the Bosporus, the easternmost channel that connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. It was the fitting destination for my epic cruise into history.

Hagia Sophia
I’m not alone in my praise for this stunning city, it has starred in numerous books and motion pictures, too. It is the eastern terminus for the fabled Orient Express train route (Paris-Vienna-Istanbul). Born of Greek immigrants three thousand years ago as Byzantium, Roman emperor Constantine abandoned the city of Rome and moved his capital from Italy to this location in the Fourth Century A.D. He renamed it “the City of Constantine,” Constantinople. One hundred and fifty years later, the Emperor Theodosius erected the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) church, an incredible monument that stands today, 1500 years later.

After 1100 years as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (aka “the Byzantine Empire”), Constantinople was conquered by the Turks who immediately made it the capital of their Ottoman Empire for the next 450 years. Sultans of immense wealth would rule from there, reigning over an empire that once covered the entire eastern Mediterranean and southeastern Europe.

Sultan's Topkapi Dagger

In 1923, the new Republic of Turkey officially discarded the Roman name of Constantinople. The name Istanbul is derived from the Turkish vernacular for “Going to the City.” So yes, Istanbul was definitely Constantinople…

The Bosporus

Sound familiar?  It should. There was an addicting summer ditty that captured the minds of American youth in 1953, which was covered by artists ranging from Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald in ’54, Bette Midler in ’77 to They Might Be Giants in 1990:

Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night…

It goes on and might not be able to get it out of your head. You may have caught the tune on TV being sung on Get Smart, Jack Benny, Cold Case, America’s Got Talent or Tiny Toon Adventures. Still humming the tune? You can go whole hog and click on this link to see a charming and addicting video of their version by way of Warner Brothers cartoons:

Istanbul was one of James Bond’s favorite destinations, too.  Look for Sean Connery’s Bond in From Russia With Love (1964), Pierce Brosnan in The World is Not Enough (1999) or Daniel Craig in Skyfall (2012). Even Ben Affleck visited Istanbul in Argo. Or how about the fun jewel-heist romp Topkapi (1964) or the all-star version of Agatha Christie’s most famous book, Murder on the Orient Express (1974)?  More darkly, famously, rent  Midnight Express and experience the horrors of Turkish prisons with an American neophyte busted in a failed drug smuggling attempt (1978).

At more than 14 million citizens, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world. Its dramatic location and multi-cultural population remind one of San Francisco, only ten times as large with more modest hills. Its famous harbor, the Golden Horn even inspired an historical connection to San Francisco; American soldier-explorer Captain John C. Fremont first spied San Francisco Bay in 1846. In his journal he opined that the enormous potential of San Francisco Bay surpassed even the fabled Golden Horn of Constantinople, and claimed that its beautiful strait that opened to the Pacific was surely a “Golden Gate.”

Golden Gate

Golden Horn

“To this Gate I gave the name of “Chrysopylae” or “Golden Gate” for the same 
reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn. 

                                                                           ~ John C. Fremont, June 5, 1948

No wonder it seemed as if I’d been here before; like Paris and Florence, Istanbul feels like a version of home. 

Now go ahead and sing that happy, silly tune…

So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks