Friday, March 17, 2017


A St. Patrick’s Day therapy session

In the forty days and forty nights since they worked on my debrided right knee, Northern California had experienced rainfall that would cause Noah pause.  Because I couldn’t heft the big Triumph, the fact that the weather was marginal for riding didn’t cause similar pause for me.

But then, the weather turned nice.  Highs reaching the 70s.  Skies purely blue or only dotted with fluffy, white clouds.  Sonoma County’s network of curving roads cresting verdant rises, dry and ice free.  The California poppies would be blooming.  And the doc said I should “spend time on a bike” to rebuild strength in my knee.

In the garage, then, I straddled the Triumph and pushed the starter button.  If the thing fired up – it had been six weeks since last I’d ridden it – I’d give some thought into taking a short spin to test out my repaired joint.  That “some thought” took about a second and a half.

Dang!  The ‘Bird looked good when I pushed it out to the street.

I headed south on Dutcher Creek Road toward the Dry Creek Valley, Lake Sonoma and beyond, stopping many times for photos, as, I figure, getting on and off the cruiser would be good therapy for my knee.

The paper reported that just last week, the growers in the Dry Creek area were enjoying bud break.  In the parlance of viticulture, the term “bud break” has nothing to do with half time during the Super Bowl.  No, it means that the growth cycle has been renewed and we sure as hell hope there won’t be a late season hard freeze.

Dry Creek is dammed at the west end of the valley.  Lake Sonoma provides irrigation and domestic water as well as miles of hiking trails and a little used 14-mile dead end called Rockpile Road, a route that crosses the reservoir on a massive bridge.

Rockpile Road threads the ridge that separates the two arms of Lake Sonoma, passing through the Army Corps of Engineers administered recreation area and into a viticulture area identified as – surprise – Rockpile.

The road is little used – it is gated about twenty minutes in – so traffic is generally limited to the ranchers and farmers who work out that way.  

The pavement is grand with sweeping curves and sections that arc over one summit, then the next, reminding me a bit of Montana’s Beartooth Pass, only more temperate, less traffic, and with better wine locally available.

But, with ample warning, it ends.


I pedal the Big Blue backwards on the pavement, arranging for myself enough space to hoist the thing around.  This is when I discover that one knee works and the other knee works not so well.

Using the guardrail to flex and relax said knee, I view the green hills – St. Patrick’s Day green hills – that lie beyond the pavement’s end.  Credited to Luther Burbank is the statement, "I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned."  

Today’s ride out and back on Rockpile Road supports his contention.

It’s been an hour and a half on and off the Thunderbird and the bum knee feels not so bum.  I’m torn between making a longer day of it, risking fatigue, and just heading back to the barn.

What could I do to enhance this already glorious day?  Then, at US 101 and Lytton Springs Road, a solution presents itself.

Tacos al pastor and a beverage perched on the seat of the bike. Just like lunch on a real road trip.  What could be better?

A Modelo Especial sounded particularly good; if only I’d not been on the bike.

Catching the freeway north, I settle in for a ten-minute blast toward home. I’d been out of the saddle too long, but the big Triumph remains as comfortable and forgiving as I’d remembered it.  I was glad for today’s glorious weather and thankful that the Biblical rains we received happened while I was under in-house confinement orders. 


Note:  Upon returning home, I reviewed notes from the doc who worked over my knee and discovered that when he said “bike,” he meant:



Today’s Route:  Exit US 101 at South Cloverdale Blvd, head west.  At the first intersection (landmark Starbucks, Sinclair Gas, liquor store, abandoned antique store across S Cloverdale) turn left heading away from town.  Somewhere along in here, the road becomes Dutcher Creek. Pass the Fritz Winery two miles southwest (stop in if you have a moment) and continue for a total of about six to Dry Creek Road.  Right on Dry Creek to the end of the valley.  At the spillway, turn left – your only choice – on Stewart’s Point Skaggs Springs passing Lake Sonoma the Visitor Center (stop in if you have a moment).  Continue up the hill about three miles.  Stewart’s Point Skaggs Springs will exit left, but you’ll want to continue on what is now Rockpile Road, over the big bridge and west for another dozen miles or so.  Return?  Retrace.  Consider following Dry Creek Road six or seven miles east into Healdsburg where you can hang out at the town’s square like the area glitterati.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


A journey into early aviation, art
and a little-known grandfather

Minor knee repair and poor weather has me off the motorcycle for a few weeks, and boxes of Mom’s memories have been stacked in the corner of my den for too long.  No time like the present, I suppose…

Sifting through her stuff, I find an ancient box designed to once hold a ream of typing paper.  Scrawled on the end of the rapidly deteriorating lid are the words: “Hap’s Clippings + pix.” 

E W Bagnell was my mother’s father.  Known as Hap to me, but others referred to him as Cap or Bobby, I knew very little about him other than that he was designated an Early Bird, wrenched on Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis, and later took up oil painting.  And he smoked Lucky Strikes.  We moved to Chico in 1957, he followed, lived with us for a year and then departed for Oakland’s Veteran’s Hospital where he died at about age 68.

Opening that ragged box of “clippings and pix” revealed some hidden history…

This from the Glendale Independent, Sunday, August 2, 1953:


Works of prominent Glendale artists will be exhibited beginning tomorrow in the city’s newest gallery, the large modern office of the Glendale Independent, 122 S. Maryland Avenue…

…Chosen to be the first exhibiting artist is E W Bagnell of 510 California Avenue, an artist member of the Art Association and a member of the Business Men’s Art Club of Los Angeles…

…The Bagnell exhibit, hung for the month of August, includes 18 oil paintings, the featured canvas being a portrait of the artist’s mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Bagnell, 93 [which currently hangs in Mom’s bedroom in Chico, CA]; and “Kings Ranch Rodeo,” from the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. M O Johnson, and loaned for the opening of the gallery…

…he had professional studios in Houston, Tex. And in Pasadena…

[Bagnell] is a pioneer in aviation and is among the early flyers that enjoy the distinction of the title “Early Birds.”* He was a captain in the Army engineers during World War I.

In his pioneering he helped build one of the earliest airplanes, sponsored by the Nebraska National Guard, and laid out Kelly Field, now Kelly Air Force Base in a cotton and mesquite field on the old Frio City Road just outside San Antonio, Tex.

Other early air ventures were test piloting for Curtis Airplane Co., and commercial flying in Mexico.  Then he and Capt. Ralph Taylor were sent by the Aero Club of America to Washington DC, with an airplane, which was set up on the Polo Field behind the White House to stimulate interest of Congressmen in airplanes, then a novelty.

Through those early years in aviation and in the Army he had little time for painting.  But he is now making up for lost time and his paintings on display in the Independent gallery are evidence of his talent and accomplishment…

Other clippings tell more of his story…

Among the other artifacts uncovered searching through Mom’s memorabilia is a model of and the patent application for a devise that when dropped into the steel pipe casing of a spent oil well, with a mechanical twist the unit can expand to press against the casing’s interior so the pipe can be craned out of the well for re-use.  Early recycler?

Also discovered: two prototype electric toothbrushes – he didn’t get the patent application on these – the works of which were encased in Bakelite.**

I pour through this trove and think of the man I barely knew.  His Army adventures began a century ago this year. 

His work in the aviation industry saw him piloting an exotic Italian tri-motor…

…and flying folks hither and yon.

Clearly, he had other adventures, however…

…and a bit of a reputation…

Hanging over the piano in my den is one of his oils called “Splitting Headache…”

…the last oil he created before he went to Oakland.


*Early Birds Membership was limited to those who piloted a glider, gas balloon, or airplane, prior to December 17, 1916. The cutoff date was set at December 17 to correspond to the first flights of Wilbur and Orville Wright. 1916 was chosen as a cutoff because a large number of people were trained in 1917 as pilots for World War I.[2] Twelve of the aviators were women.

Hap’s name is embossed on a plaque in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum along with the Wrights, de Havilland, Sikorsky, Glenn Curtis and others.

** Bakelite is one of the first plastics made from synthetic components.  Bakelite was used for its electrical nonconductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems, children's toys, and firearms.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, March 4, 2017

“On the Road with Janis Joplin” – a review

by John Byrne Cooke
Berkeley Press (division of Random House/Penguin)
© 2014 - $17.00

Rock music leapfrogged over me.  Mom wouldn’t let it in the house and I was loath to defy Mom.  So all the great groups, the Stones, the Dead, Jefferson Airplane – you know ‘em, I don’t – I missed out on, although I could give you most any lyric from “Oklahoma” or “Guys and Dolls” and know Sinatra’s songbook pretty well.

Fast forward to about 1992 and I’m attending the Jackson Hole Western Writers Conference in hopes of becoming a something I didn’t have the tenacity to become.  It’s Fourth of July Weekend and I find myself sitting on a hillside at the Snow King resort, drinking a beer, eating a burger, watching fireworks and hearing them boom and echo off the darkened mountainsides; and chatting one-on-one with one of the presenters:  John Byrne Cooke.

John is a talkative guy – perhaps a bit more so than other authors – but with good reason.  He researches and writes on interesting topics.  His trilogy “Snowblind Moon” (Tor 1986) tells the remarkable saga of Native American life on the plains during the time between the Fetterman Massacre and the events at Little Big Horn.  “South of the Border (Bantam, 1989) posits Butch Cassidy’s return from Bolivia.  “The Committee of Vigilance” (Bantam, 1994) is a novel centered on the raucous quest for law and order in gold rush San Francisco.  In 2007, Cooke published, “Reporting the War” (Palgrave MacMillan) a treatise on press freedom during American conflicts from the Revolution to our current War on Terror.  All interesting stuff.

The only concert I believe my wife ever attended, as a teen growing up in “the City,” was one featuring, perhaps, Big Brother and the Holding Company fronted by Janis Joplin.  Oh Lord!  Come to find out, John Byrne Cooke served as a roadie for that group.  He didn’t mention this to me at the Snow King.

Rather, I had to wait until I found his memoir, a loving tribute to an immense talent, that I realized his interests were even more varied – his life much more interesting – than simply researching the west and the press.  Reading through his work, I find myself transported back to the 60s, enjoying those bands that I’d never heard, traveling roads decades before I actually traveled them, and witnessing the love, the weed, the passion and the camaraderie of those young people whose generation I was both a part and not a part of.

John is a fine storyteller and Janis’s life was a fascinating, if tragic story.  I’m thankful that Cooke was there to see it and has decided to share it in his fast-paced, page-turning, readable style.  I now feel as if a little piece that had been missing as been put into place.

See your local, independent bookseller.

Monday, February 20, 2017

“The Theft of Memory” – A Review

subtitled:  “Losing My Father, One Day at a Time”
Jonathan Kozol
Signal Press (imprint of McClelland and Stewart)
© 2105

Jonathan Kozol is a highly regarded author of books on education and the underprivileged.  As a school curriculum superintendent, I recommended many of his works to colleagues and staff.  He writes with clarity, passion and conviction and his authorial wheelhouse is the realm of the mismatch between educational opportunity and educational need.

Long out of the profession, I picked up “Theft” in order to revisit the wisdom of this extraordinary thinker.  Never mind that it wasn’t about schools, but his dying father.  On page 2, Kozol writes about “Daddy” smoking his pipe: “The aroma of the smoke as it rose up about him remains in my memory, comfortably intertwined…” My Dad smoked a pipe.  And his favorite leather chair and the maple ashtray stand Dad used to use is at my elbow as I type.  Kozol had me hooked.

Harry Kozol, a renowned psychiatrist of the 20th century, would succumb to Alzheimer’s at age 102.  My dad only made it to 76.  Jonathan Kozol writes about the journey he takes with his father.  Along the way, he shares the contents of some of Daddy’s musings and reports found amongst the boxes of memorabilia left for Kozol to store.  Included were thoughts about professional contacts his father had with, among others, Eugene O’Neill with his gnawing creative self-doubt and Patricia Hurst and her turbulent path toward captive revolutionary.  The passages make you somehow feel as if some aspect of HIPPA is being ignored.  It’s all fascinating. 

But more intriguing is the thread of Kozol’s personal history with a driven father – attending on Saturdays, as a youngster, father’s examination of patients as a “guest consultant,” fishing with Daddy and losing fancy lures in the thicket across the creek, the aching fatherly disappointment when the son foregoes an Rhodes scholarship, and the resolution of this – and how son’s relationship with that father evolves, turning 180 degrees as son the cares for an aging parent.  The memoir is poignant and compelling, concluding: “Some blessings our parents give us, I need to believe, outlive the death of memory.”

I lived several hours from Dad as he progressed through his illness. In his last year, my career brought me to within 90 minutes.  That change meant I could hold his hand and read to him just a little bit more than before – and I did until the end.  It’s been seventeen years since Dad died.  A dozen or so boxes of knickknacks and writings remain sealed somewhere here in the house.

Kozol has convinced me to open them up and explore.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


A Personal History

I watched ‘em build Oroville Dam.  Yep.  That Oroville Dam. 

Department of Water Resources
In the 1960s, we lived In Chico, California about a half hour from Oroville Dam’s construction site on the Feather River.  With the foresight that only a few wise parents possess, Mom and Dad thought it would be a good idea if their boys could witness the construction of what would become an Eighth Wonder of the World.

Courtesy: Dad
As kids, our folks ensured that we rooted around historic places in the general vicinity of Chico.  One was Bidwell’s Bar on the Feather.  It was the place where Chico’s founder, John Bidwell, did a little prospecting and placer mining.  Located on a stream course that would be crossed by what would become the Oroville – Quincy Highway, California’s first suspension bridge was built to span the gully.  With the filling of the reservoir, the bridge would be lost, so efforts were made to relocate the historic structure, but I remember it in its original location.

(c) Bill Talbitzer
Many tidbits of history were to be Lost Beneath the Feather, so local newspaper reporter Bill Talbitzer collected stories of both the mining camps along the Feather and of old Oroville, put these together with some historic photographs and published an entertaining volume of lore by the same name.  I have three copies.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica
Construction of the dam began with the installation of a concrete core way down in the bottom of the river canyon.  An observation point had been leveled out so the curious could see this process a great distance up the side of the canyon.  To my nine-year-old eye, the gigantic earthmovers and concrete pumpers looked no bigger than the Tootsie Toys we played with in the pile of dirt out behind the house. 

We would return to this overlook many times to watch the progress.  Being only nine, and then ten, it seemed like it took forever for any of that progress to be noted.  But the observation area proved to be popular – so much so that some entrepreneurial type threw together a snack bar with a large sign advertising “Best Hot Dogs by a Dam Site.”  I thought it was odd that they’d use a cuss word on their billboard, but that was long before I really grasped (and embraced) cussing.

Petersen Tractor
At 770 feet in height and over a half mile in length at the top, Oroville Dam is the world’s largest earth fill dam.  Materials for the endeavor linked Oroville’s 1860s past with its 1960s present.  Where the Feather River tumbles out of the Sierra/Cascade and into the broad, flat Sacramento Valley, the velocity of the falling water slows and it’s load of gravel and silt and gold was deposited along the river’s bottom.  Massive dredges were employed to scoop up this rocky sludge so that gold would be extracted from the goop.  The tailing left behind covered square miles of valley floor, sitting there, undisturbed, until folks realized they were a dandy source of earth-fill for an earth-fill dam.

A twelve-mile long railroad was devised to transport these historic cobbles from the valley floor to the construction site.  Trains of forty car lengths hauled the burden and were ingeniously unloaded using a machine that tipped the load out of the gondolas without unhooking them from the train.

One day, probably a couple of years into our visits, we were surprised to find that the observation area had been fenced off and the hot dog stand removed.  Following detour signs, we soon found ourselves several hundred feet above the old vantage point at a new one.  There would still be a lot of work to do.

Not the least of which was the removal of a concrete arch bridge that was filled around with tailings and protruding out face of the construction.  In order to ensure the integrity of the dam the bridge would need to be blasted away – and the blast would be spectacular.  With multitudes of others, we gathered at the upper observation point to witness the scheduled explosion.  Noon would be the appointed hour and at high noon – with the gathered holding their collective breaths – a plunger was pushed and, outside of what looked like a minor puff of dust, nothing happened.  It would be weeks before the old bridge was taken out.

Completed in 1967 or 68, Oroville Dam would corral the second largest reservoir in the state.  The route of the Western Pacific would be moved, and a new suspension bridge crossed over a now inundated Bidwell’s Bar.  It was predicted that in three year’s time, the lake would be full. 

But an unusually wet rainy season turned that three-year timetable into mere months.  We drove over to Oroville to watch the dam spill for the first time.  Water raced down the chute, crashing into bolsters at the bottom designed to keep the current from washing out the opposite bank of the Feather.  It worked perfectly.

Six or eight years later, when I was living in nearby Paradise, California, a large and rather disconcerting earthquake rattled Butte County causing many broken windows and some structural damage to buildings in downtown Oroville.  Speculation held that the weight of the water behind the dam might have caused movement along a minor fault or fissure with ripple effects across the immediate area.  I recall my brand new VW bus sitting under a wildly swinging carport and wondering what insurance might cover.

In January and February of 2017, California’s five-year drought was interrupted by a series of atmospheric river storms.  Funneling up the river courses of the American, the Yuba and the Feather, area reservoirs filled to capacity way too early in the wet season.  Engineers and hydrologists knew that to reserve capacity for future unknowns, releases from Oroville would be necessary and the spillway was again activated.   

San Francisco Chronicle
This time, however, the unforeseen occurred.  A fault in the huge concrete slip-n-slide allowed water to drain through the surface rather than over it.  In a short time, the boil of water washed out some strata or fill beneath the spillway and a hole developed.  Water rushed beneath the structure and began eroding the hillside.  Operators halted the spill to assess the situation while an incredible volume of water poured into the lake from upstream.

Sacramento Bee
Fortunately, an emergency spillway – one never used before – worked as it had been engineered, allowing inches of water to outflow over its 179-foot length.  In anticipation of this event, a little clearing of the overgrown emergency route ensure that trees, brush and debris would not wash down to the Feather’s course clogging it at the Table Mountain Boulevard Bridge and possibly wiping it out.

When the waters came, everything worked as designed.

Still, “experts” from around the country predicted that the dam was on the brink of failure, raising concerns that were generally unfounded.  Through this I’ve concluded, yet again, that the following is true:


Department of Water Resources
We live in an age where too many believe that nothing the government does is done well.  Oroville Dam stands in stark contrast to that belief.  It is a masterpiece that has lived up to its billing as an “Eighth Wonder of the World.”


Notes:  Here’s a DWR video that tells the real story of the dam’s construction.  It is worth six minutes of your time:

Please forgive any uncredited images found in this post.

UPDATE!!!  Two and a half hours after posting this the Department of Water Resources (DWR) called for an evacuation of low lying areas of Oroville as the soil/topcover in the emergency spillway began to show unexpected signs of erosion. It appears that lake inflow has slowed and that releases down the damaged main spillway have been increased to, hopefully accommodate the circumstance. That said, perhaps the Church of the Open Road was a bit premature in suggesting that "everything worked as designed."

Still, reports of a dam failure are still in the "too early to tell" category.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, January 28, 2017


A Church of the Open Road
mini memoir

My grandfather, “Hap” Bagnell smoked Lucky Strikes, a habit conferred upon him by the US Army.  So-called “tailor-mades” were once offered as part of a doughboy’s c-rations.  Young teens in the 1960s didn’t receive c-rations, but we could easily get our hands on cigarettes.  Cigarettes made us cool.  Cigarettes made us adult.  Cigarettes made the girls like us.  Or so we thought.

In those days the Marlboro ad campaign was moving from the elegant choice for women of the forties and fifties to the rugged “come to where the flavor is” west.  Cue Elmer Bernstein.  Many of the guys in the seventh and eighth grade fancied themselves leather-skinned cow busters, therefore the routes spoking out to the neighborhoods from the junior high were littered with Marlboro butts.  Some kids were a bit more individualistic.  The town jeweler’s son lived a half mile away from me.  He picked a menthol brand called Alpine.  Their slogan was “Go to the mountains, it’ll do a lot for you.”  One of the twins who lived next door was different too.  His brand was Tareyton – “I’d rather fight than switch” – although he wasn’t much of a fighter.  Ultimately, as kids were joshing and poking at each other and puffing on the way home from school, I felt late to the party.  Out of the gang.  Different, in a bad way.  That’s how you feel when you’re thirteen.  And I knew I needed to do something about it.

Out through a couple of orchards in back of our house, a tilt-up, pre-McDonald’s hamburger stand was positioned next to the state highway.  Going to the “Jolly Kone” was a slightly longer, alternate route from school, but there you could get an order of fries and a milkshake for about eighty-five cents, so a visit was worth the extra time and trouble.   

In the back corner of the stand’s small, enclosed dining area stood a cigarette vending machine about the size of a jukebox.  On the front of the machine were three or four rows of rectangular clear plastic buttons.  Beneath each surface was a small likeness of a package of cigarettes.  There must have been three dozen to choose from.  Staring at it one day, while downing a strawberry shake and waiting for my fries to cool off, I was overwhelmed by all the choices.  Which of these brands would ultimately be mine?

I wanted to fit in so I had to start packin’ smokes, but within limits, I liked being a bit different.  So I eliminated Marlboro for obvious reasons and both Tareytons and Alpines.  I considered Lucky Strikes for a long while but figured maybe I wasn’t being fair with the others brands on that machine.  I ruminated on this for quite some time until, walking home with the boys one day, I settled on a plan.  I’d start with whatever brand was in the upper left hand corner of those rows of buttons and move across until I settled on something that I liked.  The next time I dropped in for my fries and shake, I figured I’d take the 15 cents change I was to get from my dollar bill, drop it in the slot, push that first button and pocket whatever came out. 

One problem with this plan however: A pack of cigarettes cost 35 cents. 

The next time, I’d be ready.

And I was.  

I placed my order.  “Your usual?” the owner asked.

“Yeah,” I stammered as he slid my change across the Formica counter.

When he turned and went to work dropping my fries into the sizzling vat and whirring my shake together in the Hamilton Beach, I slipped over to the cigarette machine.  The mechanical activity in the kitchen would certainly cover the sounds of my sin.  Deftly, I slipped a quarter I’d saved and the dime I’d just received into the slot.  They clattered into place sounding like thunder to me.  I glanced over my shoulder, happy to see the cook not peeking round the corner at me, then I stabbed at the upper left button.  Something tumbled out of the machine like a rock fall and thumped into a slot at the bottom.  Blindly, I grabbed whatever had fallen out, slipped it into the front pocket of my jeans and escaped through the screened back door of the dining area.  No fries and shake this day.

Heart pounding, I raced through the orchards to an old shed I’d predetermined would be safe to begin my exploration of finer tobacco products and where I’d hidden a book of Hap’s matches.  Making the boy-cave, I paused for a moment to catch my breath.  Then I fished in my pocket and pulled out the pack of cigarettes.  Chesterfields.  Never heard of ‘em before.  The package was adorned with some sort of shield or coat of arms and lettered in fancy English style stuff. 

Pretty sophisticated, I thought.  I think I’m gonna like these! 

I fumbled with the package until I found the slip of cellophane that when pulled would unwrap itself revealing a foil top that I tickled open with my nervous fingers.  Tightly packed inside was an unknown quantity of something tobacco-y enveloped neatly and uniformly in rolls of thin white paper.  I picked and pulled and picked and pulled at one until, with a ragged end and its contents spilling out, the first cigarette came free.  Mangled, I looked at the thing.  I must have really torn it up because, unlike the Marlboros, Tareytons or Alpines, it had no filter.  It must have busted off, remaining in the package.  I tossed the cigarette away, vowing to be more careful the next time.  The second one came more freely from the pack.  Its contents still tight and neatly wrapped, there was no filter on this one either.  I peered into the dark cavity left by the first two samples, but saw nothing.  The third one came out with ease and, yet again, filterless.

Finally, I reasoned that this must be how this Chesterfields were made.  Convenient, I thought, and you can light either end.   So I picked one, stuck an end in my mouth and on about the third or fifth try, lit the other end.

If you could somehow combine week-old barbecue ash from our grill, wilted spinach dried and dotted blue with mold and, perhaps some rusted steel wool, that flavor combination would fall well short of how awful what I’d just tasted, tasted.  I pulled the thing out as my eyes began to water slightly.  Maybe its something you just have to get used to, I thought, so I took another drag.  And then a third.  Not good, but maybe getting better?  What did I have to compare this taste to?  For several minutes, I puffed and wiped my eyes and puffed and wiped my now dampening brow until the thing was burned down close enough to scorch my tender fingers.

Before I stubbed it out, I recalled that several of the boys could light a second one off the first if they held the new one steadily between their lips and touched the lighted tip of the nearly spent butt to it.  And I’d seen Bogey do this in the movies.  Cross-eyed, I tried it rather clumsily.  In the process, the orange cinder of my first smoke briefly seared my thumb and index finger as I touched it to a replacement that wouldn’t hold still in my unpracticed lips.  Grimacing, I held on, thinking that this, perhaps, was something the Marlboro man had likely mastered.  Maybe this contributed to his being so rugged and worldly and leathery.  Less than half way through the second, however, my forehead drenched, my body somehow sweaty, a chill hit me.  I shivered a bit, then shook.  I leaned back, then forward and heaved a painful dry heave.  I was in way over my head.

Struggling to find my feet, I staggered from my hideout toward the house.  Grandpa Hap intercepted me.  “So, boy,” he said, “How you like smokin’ tailor-mades?”

I looked up at him though my watery eyes.  How the hell do adults always seem to know?  My lips quivered, but nothing came out.

“It’d be a good idea not to start,” he said, winking and slapping me on the back.

And I didn’t. 

The next day I buried the rest of that pack of Chesterfields in the bottom of the garbage can – surely no one would find them there – and waited restlessly until the following Tuesday when the disposal company came by to cart off our trash.

When you’re thirteen, fourteen or fifteen, walking and poking and joshing your way to or from junior high, sixty seems old – a long time away.  Suddenly, when you’re in your sixties, it somehow seems young.  Too young.  I think this as I am taking the long, slow journey home from services for the first of the gang of neighborhood kids I grew up with.  The one who’d made Tareyton his brand.


In grateful remembrance of growing-up neighborhood buddy Perry Harve Allread.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, January 23, 2017

California: A History – a book suggestion

By Kevin Starr, Modern Library, © 2005-2015, $17.

As a school principal I recall dropping by an eighth grade teacher’s history class the first day of school one year.  I remember him offering this sage comment to his charges: “The thing about history is that it’s a story well told.”  Surely that thought didn’t originate with him, but it stuck with me.

The story of California, from its geomorphic origins to its ranking as the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world is both dramatic and sublime.  It is expansive and illustrative of histories everywhere.  Decades back, I recall telling my fourth grade students that any kind of event that has happened in human history has happened in California.  Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in Italy?  Mount Lassen erupted here.  Overthrow of the British by the colonists in the 1770s?  The Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 tossed out a distant Mexican regime. The subjugation and massacre of Native Americans in the Great Plains?  We have the Modoc War (in which the only Cavalry officer having risen to the rank of General was killed.) Earthquakes in Alaska or Japan?  Reference shifts in our San Andreas Fault and many of its cousins.  Engineering feats like Egypt’s Aswan High Dam?  Ours are at Shasta and Oroville – and at the Golden Gate.

Then there are the events that have occurred or industries that originated only in place like California:  The titanic rail crossing of the Sierra, the birth of the motion picture industry in Hollywood, the dawn of aero space, Disney, Apple, Tesla.

I used to tell kids they could almost walk out their back door and step into some aspect California’s history or at, least find something within and hour or so from home if Mom or Dad would drive ‘em.  We live in a wonderful state.

Few people have told the story of California better than former state librarian Kevin Starr.  I purchased a copy of California:  A History the other day having read that Mr. Starr passed away a week ago.  My previous copy had somehow wandered off.

Rereading Starr’s work, I am reintroduced to the names and places – and the names that have become places – that I’ve enjoyed touring over the course of my explorations.  Mr. Starr makes me want to revisit the route of the Old Spanish Trail as well as the Applegate.  I want to again see Monterey’s presidio and the site of our state capitol in Benicia.  I need to see the Mount Wilson observatory and find my grand dad’s resting spot at Forest Lawn. I want to shake hands with Fremont and Carson and Bidwell and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Kevin Starr’s well-told story of California makes me want to do all these things.  Reading like an action/adventure novel in places, his history has proven to be both a pleasant departure from current events and a bit of an explanation of them.

If you’re in need of a similar respite, consider seeing your local independent bookseller and spending a few days in Mr. Starr’s California.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


A Church of the Open Road

My father was an honorable, honest and straightforward man – except when it came to cookies.  Mom was a prodigious cookie baker often producing double and quadruple batches of Toll Houses or Gingersnaps in an effort to ensure our classic, fired-clay cookie jar was always full.  She was famous in the neighborhood.

As a letter carrier, Dad would leave for work before sunrise and pedal home at around 3:00.  Having been on his feet all day, he’d collapse in his chair for a thirty-minute siesta then rise to go prospecting for a snack.  Ever bountiful, the cookie jar was a virtual Mother Lode – one that would never disappoint.  There was a drawback, however.  It seems the clinking of the fired-clay lid back down on the fired-clay jar resonated like a pick’s head on bedrock, often alerting Mom that someone was fixing to ruin his appetite within an hour or so of dinner.  Raging invectives would follow from the sewing room or the laundry. Nabbed in the act, Dad would sheepishly slip the Snickerdoodle back into the jar and sneak away to partake in a pipeful of Half-n-Half out on the back patio or in the den.  There, he’d sit quietly puffing and contemplating.

Apparently, he eventually contemplated this:  On the counter near the cookie jar was a stand-up holder for paper napkins.  If, armed with a four-fold napkin, he could carefully lift the jar lid, snatch a nugget or two from within, lay the napkin atop the jar and gently replace the lid, then he could slide the napkin out and the lid would settle silently into place. 

At some point, spying him lumber into the kitchen after his nap, I peeked around the doorway and caught Dad returning a napkin to the holder.  It didn’t take me long to realize what was going on and that I could use this information to – what’s the word I’m looking for? – blackmail him.  Thus, every day for months and months – maybe a year or more – Dad and I enjoyed a smuggled cookie about an hour before dinner.

One day, however, Dad screwed up.  As we tittered and snacked and he congratulated himself over his shrewd and refined ability to continually outsmart Mom, he must have forgotten to slip the napkin out from between the lid and the jar.  Mom obviously discovered this, but said nothing.  Instead, the by the very next day, mysteriously, napkin holder disappeared from the counter.

And for the remainder of his time on this planet, Dad never figured out where that napkin holder went.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press