Hampton and LaSalle



Hampton and LaSalle. On that corner in Piedmont there was a vacant lot.  It was in a posh neighborhood, but it was level, a bit weedy, mostly sandy smooth enough for a pickup baseball field.   On Saturdays we gathered, no pre-arranged meeting, just boys who wanted to play ball.  Bases were shirts or jackets, sometimes the ball was wound with black electrician’s tape. The number of players varied.  A pitcher and a catcher and a first baseman, maybe a shortstop. Sometimes there were enough of us to add outfielders. Sides were chosen when one person grabbed a thrown baseball bat and another person grabbed it just above his clenched fist. This was repeated in turn until the last hand at the top got the first choice.

Anything out of the infield was two bases. There was never a visit from a parent. No one had baseball shoes. There were no sign-ups, no dugout, no coaches, no team names, no one to call balls and strikes.  If a batter passed on a pitch it was a ball, but nobody walked to first base.  Either you hit the ball or struck out swinging. No fathers shouted at a kid to choke up on his bat, no mother dropped kids off,  nobody lined the foul lines  with chalk.  We patterned ourselves after Pacific Coast League players: Ray Hamrick who played left field for the Oaks, Billy Raimondi who was the catcher, Pumpsie Green, second base. We rode the C train to Emeryville and walked to the Oakland Oaks ballpark.  The fog came in off San Francisco Bay and we watched the Oaks play the San Francisco Seals and teams from Seattle, Portland and San Diego. There were players named DiMeaggio with the Seals.

There’s probably a big house at Hampton and LaSalle now, with a four car garage.  The kids who live in it get shuttled to a green field in a Range Rover and the father shouts words of instruction and curses the umpire who is paid by the recreation department. They have new baseball mitts and the ball is white and the seams are hard. And they wear helmets just in case somebody throws a pitch at their head. The games are all prearranged. Statistics are kept. Four balls and you walk to first. Your mother has to show your birth certificate before you are allowed to play. Nobody bought us pizza after a game on those Saturdays at Hampton and LaSalle.

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ip 278

Paul and I slept on summer nights on the roof deck above the kitchen alcove at 221 Carmel Avenue.The house had heavy blackout curtains that were drawn over the windows at supper time. Great Uncle Howard was a block warden, going out after dark with his hooded flashlight to check to see that the neighborhood was following directions. To the west  from that deck were Oakland and San Francisco but it was black  Somewhere out in the bay were dozens of ships, but they, too, were blacked out

And then came the announcement that the Pacific War was over.  Japan had surrendered!  That night when the two of us stepped out onto that deck we were met with a blinding display of light.  Oakland and San Francisco glittered and the bay sparkled with the lights of those ships. As far as w could see there were lights, yellow, red, white, green. Lights from cars, lights on bridges and ferries, street lights and house lights and tall buildings lit up like Christmas trees.

We grew up in Illinois, and now we lived in a house high on a hillside, with a view of two cities at night, and it could not have been more startling for two prairie boys.

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the power went out


The power went out. For fifteen hours it was dark in the house.  And, as I lay awake at three in the morning I thought of those lines that run above our street. They were empty.  The current that runs through them was stopped somewhere, and men were working in the pounding rain and high winds to restore what we casually know when we flip the switch on the wall.

Benjamin Franklin was the one who hung a key on his kite string, and it was Thomas Edison who, in 1879, figured out how to make a filament that glowed when electric current surged through it. The light bulb he invented burned for forty hours.   The first street lights were in England, and then came the telegraph, dots and dashes transmitted through wires powered by electricity.  My great uncle Howard left school in his teens, learned Morse Code and wandered around the United States tapping a telegraph key for railroads before going off to France where he strung wire into No Man’s Land in order to telegraph news of the World War One attack to headquarters. Now electricity powers our television, our telephone, my computer, the lights that line Mario’s driveway, stadiums where baseball and football are played long after the sun has gone down, and even automobiles.

I lie here and wonder when the power will once again surge through those lines. Will there be power to start my stove in the morning, keep the food cold in the refrigerator, charge the battery in my electric bicycle?  Or will we have to go to Hilda’s café in San Anselmo for breakfast, hoping that Hilda has the power to make us a breakfast that would be like any breakfast you could find on the road in Nebraska, eggs and sausage and hash browns and coffee.

But at six o’clock, as I towed the last garbage can to the top of the driveway, the streetlight glowed.  I looked back at the house and the Christmas tree in the front room was alight, the kitchen windows were yellow.

Electrical current flowed through those lines above me, entered my house, surged through walls, and glowed in light bulbs. The toaster would work and the coffee maker would begin to chug, I could turn on my computer and tell Tom Wittenberg about the 90 mph winds on Mt Tam, and my brother Paul could call me and tell me how he was.

When I worked at Oakland Camp as a teenager, I learned how to re-wire circuits, occasionally giving myself a shock when I touched the wrong wire.   And I remembered that there was a time when men were strapped into chairs and electricity was pumped into them while they pulsed until they were dead. This morning the sudden glow of the street light was welcome. It signaled a day in which I could lie on the couch, a lamp at my head, and read another mystery.

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afternoon light


One of the things I never tire of is the late afternoon light going off the shoulder of Mt. Tamalpais.  The folds of the mountain darken, the ridges still alight, and then it becomes a shadowy outline.   I watch it from an Adirondack chair that I built, using a pattern I copied from a collapsed chair that I found underneath Dora’s cottage at Dillon Beach.  It was a chair that had probably been in use when I was a teenager.

The sun goes off the mountain, replaced by the darkening sky, and the occasional airliner that glides over Marin County, its lights winking.  I listen to that sound and imagine people gathering their belongings, putting on their shoes, getting ready to land. Where have they come from? England? France? Italy?  Singapore? Australia?

I have done that same thing, gathering my thoughts and my shoes at the end of a long flight, looking down at the darkness where we will land.

The mountain becomes black and then fades. It is cold and I go inside and fix dinner.   I live in a house where there is green from every window and door.  Deer wander unafraid in the street, raccoons push over the garbage cans, dogs bark in the small hours.  Coyotes trill on the ridge before the first light. Wild turkeys gobble on roof tops and a heron swooped down to eat the koi in a neighbor’s pond.

I will leave several Adirondack chairs, two that I made in the basement of the house we owned in Eureka, another that folds, the pattern I copied from the wrecked chair under Dora’s cottage. Someone else will sit in one of those chairs, and they  will look at something else; perhaps they will look at the fence that circles their yard,  or they will look at trees and if they are lucky, they, too, will look at a mountain with the sunlight sliding off its ridges.

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the double weasel brothers

img_0127Graham on the right, guide Dubs on the left with a big snook that Graham caught in Belize.

The photograph on my desk shows Graham and Geoffrey posing for the camera on October 17, 1998. They both wear fishing vests, both hold their fly rods. Graham is laughing while Geoffrey looks at him, apparently having just said something.  Graham has on a Stetson hat and they stand with Sagehen Creek behind them.  It is the day that Art Morris died.  Both of them have a piece of equipment that Art gave to them.  Maybe it is a Hardy reel or a pair of wading shoes or flies, or even a rod. The tag line I put on that photo is “The Double-Weasel Brothers.”  Countless times they fished with Art and me, and often Art had some advice or a piece of equipment to give them or simply good companionship. Once Art noticed that Graham was wearing tennis shoes when he fished. Art opened the trunk of his car and gave Graham his first pair of wading shoes. Both of my boys thought of him as more of a grandfatherly figure than simply the old man’s fishing friend.  We stayed at the Sierra Sky Lodge, fished Nelson Creek, the Middle Fork, spent nights in Jackson Creek campground where falling sugar pine cones dropped all night long.  They grew up with Art Morris.  They became two large men who can place a fly with unerring accuracy on a stream and became two men with whom Art and I enjoyed spending time.  I remember having a coffee on a cold morning in front of the motel watching the wet highway and logging trucks passing, the white noise of their tires filling the air. Hopefully the rain would stop, we would go down to Two Rivers and catch trout.  They never kept a trout.

When Art was a boy, he fished with a piece of willow with a leader tied to the tip.  His father told him that he could have a rod and reel when he came home with a limit of trout.  In the Morris household, that was dinner.  The limit was fifteen fish, and there were times, Art said, when he came home with fourteen trout and his father said, “Close.  One more is what it takes.” The old man wasn’t one to hedge his bets.  The Morris household wandered from one construction site to another, often living in a tent. Art said he went to twenty-three elementary schools, and he never made friends because he never knew when they were going to move on to the next site.

On hot July days when no one was catching anything, Art came back to Oakland Camp with trout.  It was years before he let me in on the secret—Tollgate Creek, a tiny stream that came through a culvert at the entrance to camp. Upstream were pools no bigger than a bathtub, but each one contained several bright rainbows.  It took someone on his knees to present a fly under those willows.

I have gone to Belize with those two men, and watched them take bonefish and snook and barracuda. They fished in the evening surf and took tropical snapper and jack on trout flies.  I have had a scotch with them at the end of the day and silently raised a glass to Art Morris.  We were lucky, I said.

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apple chutney


Sofia Strempek decided that as favors for dinner guests at her wedding she wanted to give away jars of apple chutney. So she and her mother, Ellen, bought sixty-five little jars and I showed up on a Saturday morning  with all my canning equipment. Sofia and Austin would become chutney makers and Ellen kept the kitchen cleared as we worked.

It involved peeling and coring fifty apples, grinding a half dozen bell peppers, onions, some small hot peppers, adding brown sugar and vinegar and minced ginger and garlic, along with spices, that had to be cooked down for nearly an hour for each batch. We did three of those, starting at nine-thirty in the morning, finishing at three thirty in the afternoon, putting away sixty-five quarter pints and eighteen half pints. Rain pelted down outside as we worked, sharing the tasks, Sofia and Austin learning how to make chutney.  By the time we were done, they were seasoned experts.

Their dog, Jake, a funny little dog, kept watch, waiting for something to fall to the floor. It turned out he liked potato chips. At the end, I sat with a good scotch while Jake lay at my feet. Sofia was taking the last of the hot jars out of the boiling water canner. And I was done in. In June, Sofia and Austin will get married on Limantour beach, there will be a dinner in Point Reyes Station, and they will move to Portland to begin married life. This morning rain drums on the skylight. I am still recovering.

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old dogs


Scruffy had a long rap sheet at the Marin Humane Society.  He would sneak out and wander Corte Madera, into the school yard, and in and out of shops in the mall until finally someone called the dog catcher and the truck would come and Scruffy would be lodged in a cage and Lou and Faye would be called, and Spiros’ dog would be bailed out to the tune of fifty bucks. He was a black dog, small to medium size, grey on his muzzle and a look that said he was up to no good.  Scruffy was a perfect name for him.

Quincy’s registered name was Wolfgang.  A purebred miniature schnauzer, Graham renamed him. He had a small dog attitude, lashed out at Dobermans and Alsatians, and once got picked up by a big dog by his neck, badly enough to visit the vet for repair.  It didn’t dissuade him.  When he got old he lost hearing and eyesight, snarled and bit anybody that surprised him from the rear.  He bit the groomer and I became his groomer, clamping his jaws shut with a belt, running the clippers over him, restoring him to a decent look for a schnauzer.  In the end his hips gave out, his coat disintegrated, he smelled like an old man who hadn’t had a shower that week, and I was the only one in the family that he tolerated   I was sorry to see him go. He sat next to me when I had an afternoon scotch and there were neither cats nor rats in the vicinity of our house.

Snuffy was another of Graham’s dogs. The old man died and his son inherited Snuffy.  The dog had few, if any redeeming features, and the son brought him into the police station. Call the pound he said and have him put down, but Graham couldn’t do that so Snuffy came home with Graham.  He chewed on the door jamb, trying to get out of the house, he stalked the cat, ran off whenever he was outside.  He’s just looking for the old man, Graham said. He rode in the police cruiser with Graham.  He’s an undercover police dog, he said.  He’s in disguise

He was small and black with a grey muzzle and had a tooth that stuck out of the side of his mouth so that he looked as if he had a perpetual snarl.  And he vibrated.  Like one of those beds in a cheap motel where you put a quarter in and it shook. So did Snuffy.

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