the Pod

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Olla Podrida.  It’s not Latin, as I thought.  It’s a Spanish name for a dish that is a “hodge podge,” a stew of meats and vegetables. A coming together of whatever there is in the kitchen, which is a good name for a high school yearbook. It’s a stew of everything: classes, clubs, plays, music, games, sports teams, faculty, Like the stew of the same name, it’s everything. Who was it that chose that name? The first Olla Podrida was published in 1895, making it one of the oldest continuously published school yearbooks in the country, a hundred and twenty-four years so far. It was forty years old when I was born, two thousand miles away.  My yearbook had only 80 pages, thirty of which were devoted to the senior class. The pages contain a lot of handwritten notes, many from classmates I don’t remember. There were a thousand students in my senior class, 500 graduating in January, another 500 in June. There was the photograph of the Rally Committee, twenty-one of us, arms folded across our chests, wearing the red and gold cap that only rally committee members could wear. Sixty-seven years have passed since that photograph was taken.  Most of the young men in that photo are no longer here. The rest of us are in our mid-eighties, and our red and gold caps are long gone. Olla Podrida.  The Pod.

 

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Olla Podrida

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The 1953 Olla Podridasits on the floor behind me.  It is a slim yearbook from Berkeley High School.  In those days the yearbook was thin, contained the photos of the graduating seniors, class pictures, photos of clubs and a few athletic photos. I was on the track and field page, going over hurdles. When I picked up that book in June, everything was ahead of me.  Now almost everything is behind me.

In 1953, schools used Latin to name their yearbooks.  Nothing fancy, nothing out of the ordinary, just a record of who was there and who was leaving. That yearbook had the graduating class for the spring There was another graduating class in the fall; two every year.

There is a photo of the Rally Committee, a group of senior boys who ushered at plays, patrolled the perimeter of rallies, kept order in the cafeteria and made sure you were on the right hand side of the stairs when you went from the first to the second floor of the main building. We got out of class a few minutes early to get to our stations, and we were all jocks, football, basketball, baseball, swimming, tennis golf and track and field. We were selected by the vice-principal, and I discovered years later, that he was clever enough to compose the rally committee of the same percentage of whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asian boys that were in the senior class.

It was, of course, something from the 1940’s and 50’s and today it wouldn’t even be a thought.  Which of today’s students would pay attention to a senior jock telling them to move over to the right hand side of the stairs?

The vice principal was a crusty man and when I took my yearbook in for him to sign, he stuck it in the time stamp, the one that was used when a student had to check into his office for some transgression, and he pulled it out, put his initials on the stamp and said, “Last time for that.”

There were 3,000 students in three class years at Berkeley High. There were two graduations a year, one in January, another in June.  It was the only high school in Berkeley, and in 1953 it was the single truly integrated high school in America.  Blacks, whose parents had come to San Francisco to work in the World War Two shipyards attended. So did Japanese kids who had spent their elementary school years in concentration camps in the desert. There were Hispanic kids whose fathers were braceros. There were the children of University professors at Cal and there were those like me, the children of middle class parents who worked in Oakland or San Francisco.

I came to Berkeley High as a junior from an all-white school in Piedmont and it was an eye-opening experience for me. It shaped the way I would think for the rest of my life.

 

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Pompei and a dog

Ruins of Pompeii - Naples Province,Campania, Italy

One of the advantages of having a dog is that when I walk him in the early morning I see the sun rise.  The mountains to the east are a black outline and above them the sky is turning a light blue-gray, and then a bit of yellow and if I wait long enough, and walk the dog far enough, it begins to be a rose color. The sky, not the dog. This weekend the owners and their daughter have gone off skiing in the Sierras, and they dropped him off Thursday evening and will pick  him up Monday evening.  Which means he goes to 94-year-old Faye’s this evening.  I am making a big cioppino for Faye and her son, Spiros, and Frank and Renee (she is the Curator of Antiquities at the fine arts museum in San Francisco).  I will sauté some Brussels sprouts to go with the cioppino, cook them with mushrooms and garlic.  And Spiros will make a salad. Lots of sourdough bread to go with everything. In the cioppino are chunks of Dover sole (I bought them cheaply at Costco) lots of big shrimp and several dozen mussels from United Market (which always has a pile of them on ice) and some scallops. And that’s my Sunday, from first light to last light. I get the dog five more weekends between now and the end of February. He is a delight, has shifted his allegiance to me and Eleanor, hovers in the kitchen when I am cooking, and pushes up against us for repeated petting. He is an affectionate dog with good manners.

Tonight we will hear of Renee’s progress in putting together a big show of the relics of Pompei.  She spent time there a month ago, went to London, Rome, Florence, Pompei and New York, and it will be a big show that will tour after it opens in San Francisco. She told us how exciting it was to be shepherded into the museum storage in Pompei and told, “Pick what you want.”

Her job is a fascinating one and she is good about sharing with us. Her husband, Frank, will not fly, so he doesn’t go to all the exotic places Renee flies to. If I were him, I would take some drugs and wake up in Cairo or Tokyo or Rome.  But no, Frank isn’t interested.  Shame on him. But hey! I will go to England and France in April and Peru and the upper Amazon in June!  How’s that for adventure? I will take my little fly rod and reel and intend to catch a piranha. OK, enough of this, time to check on the sauce that’s simmering for the cioppino.

 

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Henning Mankell

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Henning Mankell’s book, Quicksand, what it means to be a human being,is perhaps the most important book I have read in a long time.  Written after Mankell was diagnosed with lung cancer, he contemplates his life as it is ending.  It contains pieces of his own past as well as reflections on the world around him.

At one point, he writes:

The skeleton of the dodo will be all we have left of that bird that had no chance of surviving once the first sailor had set foot on the beach in Mauritius. The dodo didnn’t know what an enemy was,  And hence of course, it was considered to be stupid.

it reminds me of Walt Kelly’s Pogo who said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

Mankell writes of the modern world and the steady extinction of creatures, and points out to us that another ice age will crush the cities and lands; everything we now know is,  he says, in between ice ages.

In an earlier post I wrote about my grandson Nathaniel and I traveling to the  Amazon rain forest.  I posted a photograph of a striated heron,   wrote:

            We will start our adventure in Iquitos, Peru, 2,400 miles from the mouth of the river and then go another four hours by speedboat up river to our destination. Duncan promises interesting creatures: pink-footed tarantulas, dart-throwing frogs, fish eating spiders, a variety of monkeys, caiman and birds as exotic as this heron whose eye is a jewel in the rain forest.

We will go to the Amazonia Research Center where they are attempting to stem the tide that Mankell writes about.  He tells us that we are on a slippery slope, sliding toward a world where automobiles will further clog our lands, their smog suffocating us.  We are like the dodo. But the enemy is ourselves.

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Poplar Creek

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There was a creek that emptied into the Middle Fork of the Feather at Sloat, just across the river from the mill (that is no longer there). It came down through a grove of Poplar trees, hence its name.  They were not large trees, and Art Morris discovered the creek because there was a bridge on the county road that crossed it just before it emptied into the big river where there was a wide riffle and when, in the heat of July, no trout were rising to a fly.  It was possible to thread through those trees to pocket water where small brown trout lay.

Morris found streams like that. It may very well have been part of his boyhood, the family living in a tent while his father was working on a construction job, a culvert  or a road widening.  Art was left on his own to find something to do and he explored, caught fish which the family ate. They camped in Truckee and he fished Trout Creek, a stream that is now mostly in culverts under the town.

He fished Tollgate Creek, which was narrow enough to step over effortlessly. He found Bucks Creek spilling into the North Fork, hidden by willows and huge boulders. He found Estray Creek which wasn’t visible from the road.  We parked next to the sign that announced the border between Plumas and  Sierra Counties and scrambled down the steep bank into the brush, only to find the creek walled in by dense willows and we fished up the center of the water, casting upstream.  Roy Harrison ran the Spring Garden store and that small creek became a pond that was circled by the Western Pacific tracks as the trains gained altitude. The circle of tracks ringed the valley, passing above itself,  and above the circle dense willows made it almost impossible to fish, but we worked our way in and found big browns lurking in the shade.  Harrison tied his own flies, mostly on size ten and twelve hooks because his eyesight was failing.  He wrote a fishing report that appeared in the weekly Feather River Bulletin.

Art found those creeks that others passed, came back to camp with trout when all others had failed to raise anything on Spanish Creek.

Once, on Tollgate Creek, Steve Walker came off the stream in disgust. “There aren’t any trout in this bathtub,” he said. Art took the tip section off his rod, tied a leader to it, worked his way near a pothole on his knees, threaded the rod tip through the branches and dangled the fly so that it just touched the water. There was a tiny explosion when a ten inch trout took the fly,

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Chevrolet Caprice Classic

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Last night I dreamed about my 1974 Chevrolet Caprice Classic convertible.  The new top that I installed was trashed, but it ran well, rain started, and I had to find a parking place and a place for a big dog that I was mysteriously attached to.  Some one was helping me, but he kept getting in the way. A strange dream, but that blue Chevvy convertible was there, the big engine rumbling.

I miss that car.  I drove it to the mountains with Geoffrey to fish and later Graham accompanied me.  I took it down an impossible steep dirt road to Carmack Mine on the Middle Fork of the Feather, a foolish decision, that could have left us maroomed in a place where a tow truck would have been useless.

Once I took it to Fairfax Lumber to get two sheets of plywood. With the top down the plywood easily fit into the back seat.

“You’re not clear on the concept, are you?” the guy who was helping me said.

“What concept?”

“You’re supposed to put a blonde in a car like this, not some plywood.”

 

Art Morris took a photograph of Geoffrey and me in that car on highway 70 through the windshield of his BMW. I have a photo I took of Graham and me leaning on the car on a fishing trip to Rock Creek in Plumas County. I sold the car to a Hispanic kid from San Francisco who paid 1,500 dollars for a car that would become a low-rider treasure.

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there are no plaques

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In looking back over what I have written these past six years, I notice that often I refer to parts of my life where I was simply a cipher. I was part of a track team at Cal and was far down the pecking order, only another body, unnoticeable among world class athletes.

I struck out with a girl at the Quincy Hotel, published novels that sold enough to pay for their publication, but I was never a Stephen King.  My life work was ordinary, I fixed my house and rode the ferries and electric trains and outlived my parents and my brother Ronald.

I have cooked a thousand meals and have fished more than fifty streams, whose names I can remember. I outlived Doug Reed and Art Morris and Garry and Philippa Sayer and a whole lot of others, including all of my childhood family except my younger brother.

I wandered the flats of West Texas in August and I spent fifty years teaching English, often to students who had no interest in what I was saying. There are no plaques anywhere celebrating the fact that I was there.

Streets that I drove in Oakland have changed, are no longer the safe streets of factory workers, and the university that I attended has grown in size until it no longer resembles the place where I languished for four and a half years. I have no fondness for the school where I taught for more than a quarter of a century. It is a school housed in a building that looks like a factory. Which, unfortunately, it was. I taught in other schools and they are a dim memory of drearily similar classrooms and students, although I remember some of those students with clarity. They were sparks of brilliance that occasionally flared.

I have lived an ordinary life. The word comes from “usual, orderly,” and that has been the métier of my life: an orderly progression, one step at a time.  I have three children now grown, with their own families, who are marvelous human beings. They are the kind of people I would choose as friends.  Occasionally I have stepped out of the rhythm, but I stepped back in, and now I can see that I am chronicling that progression.

Patti Smith wrote, It isn’t easy writing about nothing.  And she was right. There are few dramatic moments; no flashing blue and red lights, no broken bones or arriving ambulances. Not for me.

One year after another.  One trout after another. One meal after another. The crows spiral down into the trees.  Evening comes.  I pour myself another drink and sit in the chair that I built. It is a chair that I found underneath Dora Williams’ cabin at Dillon Beach in decaying pieces, brought it home and traced a pattern.  Now I sit in that chair, a copy of the original that no doubt, sat on Dora’s deck seventy-five  years ago and I look at the mountain. The sun slides off the edges, deepening the darkness in the folds.  An ordinary life. My father had an ordinary life, cut short by tuberculosis. So did my mother, whose dignity was cut short by dementia.  My older brother had an extraordinary life, but no one noticed.  His brilliance was over-shadowed by his own arrogance.  He was, I think, a meteor that flared, sudden incandescence in the sky,  and no one noticed.  I did not understand his brilliance. My younger brother continues to defy the odds, dodging one unexpected major medical event after another. I told him that if he were a cat, he would be dead by now.  His response was: several cats.

This life is mine.  The extraordinary moments shine like silver dollars, heavy coins that resonate. They are  filled with moments of  sudden clarity. They came late in life. When I was a boy I kept marbles and when I won at marbles I sometimes had a big marble, striking, with colors that shimmered.  The moments that are surprising in my life are like those marbles. They tumble in the shallows of the North Fork of the Yuba River..

A few stories are memorable: The Heeler, and The Lord God Bird, The Dog Sox  and Tom Hall stand out.  Perhaps there is one more: Ghost Trouta collection of essays that chronicles parts of my life appeared in print in November.  It is my swan song. According to the experts, swans don’t sing when they expire. They whistle or trumpet all their lives, but in the end, according to legend, they sing.  It is a final expression of the life they have led. Ghost Trout is the song that the swans do not sing. But it is there. One more chorus.

Henning Mankell, in his final book, reflecting about his life, writes: “I am myself and nobody else,  I cannot be exchanged for anybody else.”  So it is with me.  I am the middle son, the one who read books under the covers by flashlight, climbed over the wall of Edwards Field to run on the track where world champions had run. I corrected ten thousand student essays. I have written books, and in one of them I wrote:  “The rivers run to the sea and I stand in the cold water, the current pulling at my calves and there is change all around me, trees growing green, an egret rowing upstream into the forest and I am, each instant, older, changed like an old dog that waits by the door, half barks at a stranger.”

 

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