Chapter 2 - Coming Into My Own
I was close to flunking out of school in my sophomore year in High School. At the time, there were a number of us they thought had potential, but were not performing. However, on some aptitude test I had scored high in engineering skills. I always got the folding of flat objects into 3D shapes correct for some reason.
Anyway, the high school put this group together. It was one of the first team teaching programs. They called it Pre-Tech. It was going to take a practical engineering approach to education. I was curious.
Instead of the more abstract college preparatory classes, this was something I got. You worked on your writing skills creating proposals for a project and writing up the results. You worked on your math skills by doing the calculations you needed to make whatever it was. AND you actually got to work in the school shop to make the physical object. At the time "shop" was part of the “technical” high school and not something college prep kids got anywhere near.
I loved this approach. It made sense to my brain. It taught me my first useful skill… how to take something you imagined and manifest it in the world. Frankly, I think everyone should learn this early, but that’s just me. It would set me on a course to become a creative designer and producer of media (my other love). I got mostly A’s and B’s in my junior and senior year and was accepted at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo. Had I seen the light? All I know is that it worked for me. It was the education system at its best. Configure a course of study for how and why a child learns. One size fits all leaves people out.
1st Congregational Church
My mother had tried to get us interested in church. She took us as kids to St. Johns on College Ave. I remember being overwhelmed by the hot packed room and feeling like I would pass out. The collective energy was just too much for me. I did however recieve a Jesus certificate to prove I was there. My father at that point was not that interested in church. Later that would change when he became a Deacon at a church in Southern California. So, in high school I headed off on my own to the 1st Congregational church.
As I mentioned I had two close friends in our Alvarado neighborhood... Mark and Maury. Maury lived right across the street and his father was the pastor at 1st Congregational Church. The church was close to the UC campus. Maury’s father was a kind man and a great story teller. So, I don’t fully remember how it happened, but I ended up going to this church by myself. The other thing about 1st Congo is that it had a dynamo youth minister named Neil. He was a robust man with lots of energy, and there was something about him that I liked. Mark, Maury and I joined the youth group as well as other kids from my junior high school. My first girlfriend, Sharon Call, was part of that group. We did our teenage love thing, making out in all parts of the church. Shameful, but stimulating.
One of the things that Neil stressed was that we were going to learn how to get along with the opposite sex. In seventh grade we were taught all the mechanics of sex, but nothing about relationships. When Neil first announced this topic, we all laughed nervously, but I have to tell you, it was the most useful information I had ever been given about how to be with girls.
My father and I also had a basic conversation about how babies were made, but no instructions on actually getting along with the opposite sex. It has always been a wonderment to me that relationship skills are not taught in schools. Boys got their information from older boys in gym class which was usually wrong and girls I guess talked among themselves. Neil taught us basic communication skills that I put to good use becoming a leader later on in high school. The church also had a gymnasium and we had a church basketball team. We were horrible, but I loved playing. As I got more involved, my brother Bruce joined as well. Eventually, we went to this church as a family. 1st Congo was a loving place, but certainly not deep in terms of spiritual practice with the exception of the music. I liked the music, particularly on Christmas Eve, but there was no contemplative work at all. That would come later. For all it was and wasn’t, 1st Congo had a major influence on me that helped me come out socially. I am thankful for the experience. It would foreshadow my interest in Christian contemplative practice and the teachings of Jesus much later on.
One of the down sides of having a big yard is that it had to be taken care of. There were no lawn folks you hired to do it in those days. My Dad had all the tools, lawn mower, rakes, clippers etc. He liked (I think) working outside and when we got old enough, he expected us to help.
It was a daunting task keeping up with it all. Particularly, the front lawn. It sloped down to the street, so you had to mow in a pattern of cross passes. It also had obstacles you had to mow around like an old sundial. I never understood why that was there. When we were smaller, the weight of the mower would pull the mower down the hill as you went across. It was a race to see if you could make the other side before gravity did its thing.
Also, we had elm trees in the neighborhood. It was part of what made it attractive. However, in the fall, the leaves would turn and fall off. This left huge piles of leaves to rake up. I always thought it was stupid to begin this before all the leaves had fallen. If we didn’t, you would rake up what was there and then the wind would blow and make it look like you had done nothing.
The other big one was the hedges. We had these leafy hedges in front of the house and down the sides of the front yard. When they became overgrown Dad would rent electric shears and start cutting. When we were younger we were supposed to follow along behind and pick up the cuttings. Later, as we got older, we were expected to do it all. It took forever. More than once I “accidentally” cut the electric cord with the clippers and work would have to stop. The tenants after us took out the lawn and the hedges. I thought that was smart.
I remember becoming convinced some days that the only reason my Dad had us kids was to help him with the yard work. This experience would color my feelings about big yards in my adult life.
Troop 4 – From boys to young men.
Another major influence for me as a kid into my teens was Boy Scout Troop 4. The Troup was led by Julien Adams. He was about as close as I got to having a second father. The troop met at St. Johns Church, went on weekend camping trips and had an isolated summer camp on Spicer’s Reservoir in the Sierras.
Any troop four images from St. Johns
Troop 4 was not your usual Boy Scout troop. It had a reputation as a “wild boy” troop that prided itself on being tough. We rarely wore scout uniforms. We prized huge bowie knifes and went rattlesnake hunting in the dark. The summer camp at Spicers didn’t have running water etc. Julien and his staff put a lot of emphasis on male development. The troop also had a secret Native American tribe that had four ranks. Each one earned by going the next initiation to becoming a young man. I grew from a boy to a young man during Troop 4 days.
The troop also had bullies. There was a lot of emphasis on self-sufficiency. That meant learning to stand up for yourself. That is a good thing to a point, but it sometimes got out of hand. Some were chosen for constant badgering. I think about it now and feel badly that I would sometimes join in. I was deathly afraid if I didn’t, they would turn on me. At that point I had never learned to fight. Boxing, marital arts etc. I was frightened by physical dust ups. I was big so that kept many from hassling me, but there was always that fear I would be next. This fear was somewhat lessened when I was assigned to the Mohawk patrol led by a boy three years older than me from our neighborhood named Sam Bryan.
I idolized Sam. He seemed so sure of himself, taught me about big Bowie knives, taught me to skin a rattlesnake. He was larger than life to me at that point. And he pretty much protected us from the bullies in the other parts of the troop and helped me gain confidence in myself.
The Lake from the top of Mohawk hill
Looking down into a patrol camp
At summer camp we were sent on survival hikes. You could take a knife and a jacket. No matches. We would hike out into the wilderness and have to find food, and shelter for three days. Talk about a learning experience. These hikes were always led by an older guy who had some skills. Mostly we didn’t starve and one time we came into a meadow in the middle of nowhere and there were a group of men who had ridden in on early four wheelers. It turned out they were butchers from a nearby town. They had brought chests of meat of all kinds. We could smell the meat cooking across the meadow. When they went to leave they asked us if we wanted what was left over. Suddenly we went from hungry to gorging on steaks, sausage etc. We ate our fill but interestingly we didn’t save anything to take back with us. When we got back nobody believed us. But we knew different.
At the summer camp there was another camp across the lake that was styled as a Native American village centered around a large Tipi. This is where we conducted “tribal” activities. We would stay overnight, learned to dance native dances, wore native clothing etc. I look back on this now and realize what a gift it was that Julien created this. As you advanced in rank from brave to chief, each had its own initiation ceremony. The final one for chief was a solo night spent blindfolded out in the forest. During the night, elders would sneak up behind you and start talking. Elder advice etc. At age 14 this was quite an experience. It introduced me to the importance of ritual so missing from white society. Later as I worked with tribes in the Southwest I engaged in real rituals, but the appreciation for this form of worship was introduced by the Troop 4 experience.
As I grew older I did my duty as a senior member of the tribe. These were trusted positions that basically ran things. It was the first time that I could remember feeling somewhat like a leader.
My memory of Troop 4 ultimately was impacted by troubling news much later. While at summer camp we were so out in the middle of nowhere we didn’t wear clothes when swimming or doing other beach activities. Julien and the other adult George Dealey would roughhouse sometimes on the beach by picking kids up and inevitably that meant the touching of genitals. It was all in good fun it seemed, but It always made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.
Julien also acted as a counselor to me when I was having trouble in school. In a sense he was like a wise father figure I could trust. He had a cabin that sometimes he would take 3-4 boys. I have memory of being there at least once. Many years later it was revealed that Julien and George Dealy had been abusing boys for years. You can imagine the shock I felt as an adult. Some of the incidents took place at that cabin. For years I wondered if I had suppressed this memory. I did a lot of visualization work around it in therapy and eventually it was decided nothing happened to me. I don’t know if Julien knowing how insecure I was choose not to abuse me. For such a positive influence Troop 4 was in my life, it also contained this darkness that to this day makes me feel very sad.
The Television Room
My Dad was a tech junkie for his day. We had a TV set very early on compared to other families. My Mother said they got it to watch the Big Game between Cal and Stanford. She told me that it was a novelty in their building neighbors would stick their heads in to watch.
Later when we moved to the Alvarado house, the TV was located in the room right next to mine. They put a beat up old, coach in the room and I would be in there as much as they would let me. There was something about this device that I could not look away from. The worlds it showed were fascinating to me. Particularly old movies from the 40’s. TV grew up into color sets with Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and we got a glimpse of Disneyland in Southern California which we visited very soon after its opening. For some reason, I could remember story lines, characters, sub-plots etc from the shows and films I watched. At the time it may have seemed like a welcome diversion, but later I would claim it would lay a foundation of stories that would come alive in my creative life.
We would watch as a family at night sometimes. And when it came time for Jane to go to bed she thought it was totally unfair. She would pretend to be in her room but then move a stool out in the hallway outside the TV room and watch through the crack in the door. Most times she got caught and was ushered back to bed. Sometimes it is just not fun being the youngest.
Lots of my early knowing of the world came through that box. 3 basic networks and PBS later. I had a story from those times that I told when I was later teaching Interactive Entertainment at UCLA and USC. When the new game machines and early computers showed up in the early eighties they seemed like magic to those of us that had not grown up on them. But to kids born after they came on the scene, they were just game machines and computers.
When first launched with a “mouse” or a “joystick” it was thought that no one under the age of 5 had the coordination to work the thing. That concept went away quickly as newbies under five seemed to be born knowing how to use them.
My story about this phenomena was the day my mother pulled me into the TV room to see a tennis tournament from England. She exclaimed the picture was coming “live” from England. First time ever. I remember looking at her and thinking, well it’s just TV. We expected it to do all those things. For her, being raised in the age of radio it was still magic. Each generation seems to be born with the knowledge of the toys that just preceded it. There are some explanations for that having to do with intelligence being passed on in the DNA to the next generation. One example is rats in a maze. As the story goes, the first generation of rats is put into a maze. They have to learn to navigate the maze to get the cheese at the end. It would take the first group a while to figure this out. Their offspring however seemed born with the knowledge and got to the cheese in a few minutes. As I said, a mystery that we will figure out some day.
Growing up one of the family activities I liked the most was when we went camping as a family. In those days you could load up the car, head out and find an open spot in a National Forest or by a lake. Nothing like now, where you need a reservation a year in advance. For us it was a time to relax, particularly Dad. The stresses of his life would fall away for a while and he seemed happier.
Our camping vehicle was a 56 Ford Station Wagon. This was no ordinary family mobile. This one was a two tone, flesh and white with cowboy brand seat covers.
In the beginning we borrowed old army tents from Papa, but as time went along, my father’s and mother’s organizational gene kicked in. Dad made a special roof rack that would hold a lot of stuff.
His genius however, was the camping boxes. My mother helped him design a four box system that would hold all the cooking stuff, plates, glasses. It was designed to pack right into the back of the Ford. These four boxes would always remain packed. We would get to a campsite and in a few minutes the four boxes would be stacked with a counter on top. Mother was set for cooking up those meals in no time.
We also bought more modern tents that almost went up by themselves and other camping equipment that made it easier.
We frequented most of the parks in Northern California. Many in those days were isolated affairs down bumpy dusty roads. The Ford had no air conditioning so I remember driving across the central valley in the summer and it was so hot, things would melt.
My Dad loved to get going before the sun came up. As younger kids, we would wake up to the sounds of packing at some ungodly hour, and then they would come for us. Half the time we went back to sleep in the car and would only wake up when he stopped for breakfast at some road side diner. It was a special treat ordering out from the breakfast menu of pancakes, waffles etc. As we headed toward the Sierras, we would cross the great California valley. One of the richest agriculture areas in the world. Hwy 80 at that point heading towards Sacramento was dotted with road side drive ins. Two I particularly remember were the Giant Orange and the Nut Tree.
The Giant Orange was literally a giant orange drive in booth where food and drinks were prepared and served. Their claim to fame was they fresh squeezed the orange juice. They were sitting in the middle of an area with orange groves so I suspect it was super fresh. I loved the orange juice. Growing up I was not a Coke kid. For some reason I didn’t like the carbonation. When given a chance I always picked orange drinks.
The Nut Tree also had some history in our family. Our great Aunts would sometimes travel on Hwy 80 and stop there. It had started as a small farm stand and grown into an institution over the years. Among other things, they baked their on mini-loafs of bread. Honie and Dodo would bring us each one. The bread was decent, but what I really remember was what it felt like to have my own loaf. Bread was one of my favorite food groups growing up, along with cheese and mayo, so this was heaven.
How our parents put up with three growing children on a bench seat right behind them I will never know. As the drives got long, we got antsy, and would poke, tease or giggle until told to stop. Later with my own kids I would thank god for mini-vans with more space.
When we would arrive, I loved exploring the camp ground and the surrounding area. If there was water, I was in it and more times than not I built something. A fort, a raft or something out of found materials. I liked building things obviously and it gave me something fun to do. Nights around casual or organized campfires were classic Americana.
As I got older the idea of camping with my family got less and less attractive. If forced to go I would try to find some girl in the campground to hang out with. All in all a good time for us as a family.
Working for a Living
For some reason I liked working early in my life. It got me out of the house and I made a little money. My first “job” was as a paper boy for the Berkeley Gazette. My route ran the length of our neighborhood. The papers would be delivered right in front of our house. We would fold them into sort of a triangle shape that made them easy to throw. We would then load them into this bag that had pockets front and back and trudge off down the street. We hated the shopping days when the papers were much heavier because of all the advertising.
The other part of the job was collecting the money from customers. No Internet or even credit cards in those days. Once a month we would go up to the front door and ask for the money. Most of it went to the paper. What was left came to us, which wasn’t much. The neighborhood was filled with all kinds of homes, some of them in decline. Those were always the mystery houses. You would never know who would open the door or what was going on behind them.
My second real job was working for Merit Cycle and Toy on College Avenue. Roger ran the place and John, another older Troop 4 guy, was his assistant. The shop featured bikes, tricycles and all kinds of toys. The bikes would arrive in cardboard boxes and we would have to put them together. Back then they even had these little push pedal cars that were a pain to assemble.
I started working part time subbing for a kid that was at camp. I thought when he came back I would be done, but Roger decided to keep me. I remember feeling bad for him, but for the first time, someone actually thought I did a good job.
Roger was a very kind man and when I was old enough to drive, he would let me take the panel truck to go pick tings up. I loved driving that truck. The other thing that was hot were “slot” cars.
For those of you that don't know, these were model cars that ran on special tracks. The tracks had slots in them that the cars rod would ride in holing the car on the track and in its own lane. The players "drove" these race cars with hand controllers. They were really fast. Fast enough to come off the track and go flying. Merit Cycle put in an entire department of cars and parts and at some point Roger let me do all the ordering for the department.
At Christmas all the dads would come into buy bikes for their kids. You could buy the bike assembled or in a box. They could save $5 if they bought UN-assembled. When they did that, we all knew they would be back. These things were hard to put together until you knew the secrets. We would all have a laugh on that one. The back room where we put the bikes together smelled of oil and rubber. Behind the bike shop was Dream Fluff donuts (still there) and the combination of the oil, rubber and sugar was something I have never forgotten.
I am not going to say that working early is a good idea for everybody, but it taught me a lot about how things happen, how to handle money, and how to help customers find what they want. It was one of the things that helped me build confidence as a person. And you got to engage with all kinds of people to boot. In between all the big jobs I’ve had, there were lots of these seemingly menial jobs, but each one was interesting in its own way and I would suggest to you a great way to learn about the world and people.
The Sporting Life
Growing up a boy in America, one important way you learn about who and what you are is through sports. First, just playground stuff and then more organized teams, school and otherwise. It is where a kind of pecking order is established in the middle of having fun. The classic moment of not being picked for a team is a story I heard from many I interviewed later. Good coaches can also make a difference. The notion of coming together with others to play a game is a classic human activity. And the competition it breeds is certainly better for men than going to war. Some kids were naturally gifted, but most of us had to work at it. The whole notion of practicing to get better was the key. Like learning anything, it’s good to have someone show you how and then spend hours perfecting what you have learned.
As I mentioned before, my brother and our friends would spend hours after school on the courts at John Muir. They were friendly pickup games, but they made us better players. The first organized league I played in was Little League baseball. Berkeley had a league that was sponsored by companies in town. It wasn’t official little league, but it was almost the same. It was for ages 10, 11, and 12 and you tried out with lots of other boys. They would pick five of each age group and some alternates.
My brother Bruce was a much better baseball player than I was and made the team every time. I was an alternate mostly. That meant you subbed for kids that were out of town. My one claim to fame came about that way. I was called at the last moment. I remember pulling my uniform on in the car and arriving after the game started. I was inserted into the lineup at first base batting eighth in the order. The game was close and it came down to the last inning. The kid before me hit a triple and was standing 90 feet away from home with the winning run. I was not a great hitter, but I managed to hit the ball just enough to drive it between first and second base into right field. I think I was so surprised I hit it that it seemed like I was running to first base in slow motion. The next day the local paper ran a short blurb about me being the hero of the game. I know it’s not much, but anything at that point was alright with me.
As we got to Junior High, basketball particularly got more important. We would play for hours in pickup games with all the team players, but for some reason I was afraid to try out.
Even though I was a pretty good player being tall and all, I would freeze up at regular team practices. This was all part of the pattern where my monkey mind got in the way and literally limited my physical performance.
In my junior year of high school all that changed. As a part of me was feeling like I was coming into myself, I tried out for the Berkeley High swim team and the water polo team. I had always been a good swimmer so I thought why not. Berkeley High was a well-regarded swim team and we would practice two hours before school and three after. Got me in shape for the first time.
The pool however was what they called a "recreational" pool that was used by everyone. As a result they dumped tons of chlorine into it. The sixties were pre-swim googles so we would go to class with this blurry look. I did okay in competition and in my senior year was elected Captain of the team. Three years earlier I would have never dreamed that could happen.
What I excelled at was water polo. I had a knack of finding the goal and because I was big and in good shape I became one of the best players. As I was mucking around with the end of High School and trying to get to college, San Jose State University sent me an invitation to apply for a scholarship. For reasons I will explain later I went to Cal Poly University instead. I never visited SJ State, but it felt good someone had noticed. At the end of high school I was also tired of the water. When I went off to Cal Poly I went out for varisty basketball, but music was about to intervene in a big way and I never played school sports again. I still enjoyed playing intermural pickup games for fun, but that also ended when my ankles would not hold up anymore.
In my adult life I have been a big sports fan. We were lucky enough to have some Bay Area teams, both college and professional, go on amazing success runs. The 49ers, the Giants and the Warriors all gave us thrills and spills over the years. Classic games that have gone down in history of sports. My brother, sister and I shared that.
Games with everything on the line were fun and exciting to watch, particularly played at a high level. I had a total appreciation for what those athletes went through to get that good in those make or break moments. The fickleness of who became the hero and who became the goat played out. It has been said that we are obsessed with sports, (certainly gambling is a part of that) but my belief is that it is better to have these competitions on the sports fields rather than going to war. The other big activity men seemed to be fatally attracted to.
Later on in my life, I found running. (inspired by the original Rocky film) I remember putting on a pair of tennis shoes one day as there were no running shoe shops yet. I tired to run around the block. I got about half way around and collapsed panting. It would be a while before I learned to train.
I eventually did half marathons, 10K’s and party races like the Bay to Breakers (with my brother)
Then in Southern Cal in the late eighties, triathlons. I trained like a maniac for three years, swimming, biking and running. Got down to 6 percent body fat. What I learned was that if you took it in steps you could gradually become fit enough to do it. I did the Olympic distance triathlons. 1 mile swim (usually in ocean) 26 miles biking and 10K running.
Somehow I held down a job and family life, but I was training every minute I could. I ended up doing 5 of them in 3 years. I performed well in my age class. I really liked the people that showed up. Except for the elite athletes it was not about winning, it was about performing better than you did last time. It became a full time obsession and after 3 years I tired of training at that level and wanted to do more normal things with family and friends. Besides, everyone I trained with on the bike got hit by a car. Some of them serious. A couple of times I came close, but I wasn't going to miss riding in traffic. The cars always win.
The other athletic passion I had was martial arts.
All my life I felt like this big out of body goof ball. Not a lot of physical embodiment. In the middle nineties I found a dojo I liked and a sensei named Bill Poet. I trained for three years and completed my black belt certification at the end of it. I really learned how to be in tune with the different energies in my body. Fire, water, earth and wind. I really sunk into my physical being and became more adapt in moving in coordinated ways. I felt for the time in my life IN my body instead of just a head on top of this casing. We trained in the dojo and the field. The form was Sung To Do, a mixed form of hands, feet and weapons. We did lots of simulation drills of knife, gun attacks. We learned how to neutralize a dangerous situation and most importantly, how to be aware enough not to put yourself in a dangerous situation in the first place. It was great a physical/mental confidence builder for me that still lingers into old age.
The Music Begins…
I mentioned earlier, music saved my life in my teens. That may be just a little dramatic, but not that much. In spite of me feeling insecure and depressed some of the time, my childhood was also filled with many good memories. I was blessed to grow up pretty much away from the ugliness, violence and real suffering in the world. I never wondered where my next meal would come from. I never worried if someone would show up to take me away. I grew up in a permissive culture that offered all kinds of possibilities, freedom and abundance. Of course, I didn't appreciate it at the time, but as you get out into the world and particularly as you travel to developing countries, you see the “other” reality that is lived out there.
All that being said, music was the thing that showed up early. I took trumpet lessons in Junior High School and played in the marching band. I know, such a geek. At that point I could read music and was not a bad trumpet player, but I gave it up after two years. Just not a cool thing to do. My mother had tried to get me interested in a musical instrument and once bought me a ukulele. A little four string job like you see in Hawaii. My grandfather actually made a case for it from spare parts, wood and cloth. Typical of him.
There was a story I heard from him about the Pinger/Blacker clan having musical ability. He wondered whether it would show up in the next generation. I don’t remember any strong pull towards playing music until I met my friend Mark. Mark’s dad was a big advertising executive and played the trombone. It seemed that everyone in their family played something. Mark played the banjo and the piano. I really don’t know when it started, but I do remember asking my mother if I could buy a guitar. I had learned some basic music cords on the ukulele, but it seemed like a toy. She took me to a pawn shop and I saw a big F hole guitar sitting in the window. I think it cost $35. It may not seem like much, but my mother was paying attention and jumped in to help at the first sign of my interest.
The first thing I did was take the two lower strings off the guitar so I could play ukulele chords, but that seemed dumb after a while. I added the two lower strings back and learned full chords from Mark. Pop and folk music is mostly constructed from a 12 chord set. Four basic keys and some minor transitional chords. We used to say you could play most rock and roll songs with four chords. (all that would change with the Beatles) We were in the age of middle sixties folk music, “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore” and other classics. We listened to the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary and Joan Biaz. Berkeley was one of the centers of this movement and Hootenannies (folk concerts mostly in the round) took place all over the place.
Now the other thing that made it interesting is that Mark had a very early Sony reel to reel tape recorder. We could actually record what we were playing.
About the same time my Dad, who was always interested in the latest technology, set up a whole wall in our den with amps and a Sony recorder with which you could overdub. That meant you could sing with yourself or add harmonies etc. So, very early, it wasn’t just playing, it was recording.
Mark and I got better and were trotted out at family gatherings and church camp bond fires. We played a lot of folk music wearing matching shirts and pants. This was the way the professionals did it we thought. I also took my guitar to Scout camp as I got older I played with Donny at camp and for the parents when we came out of camp at the family bonfires.
Donny was a natural musician like Mark. What I learned is that playing with someone that is that good makes you better. As you struggle to keep up, you actually get better. They can also show you tricks that make it easier to play well.
Mark and I played at high school talent shows, at church programs etc. Maury, our other friend, would roam the audience and pick up on young women. As much as I liked playing (writing would come later) I also became more popular and that helped me come out of my shell. About half way through High School the Beatles happened and it brought real disruption to our lives.
In Berkeley there was a really strong black blues scene. We were used to listening to boot legged 45’s of Bo Diddle, Chuck Berry, Otis Reading and many others. We also listened to the 50’s white artists like Elvis, but I was drawn to the “soul” of the black music. It turns out so were the Beatles. In a weird turn around, these British white groups were recording black blues songs and getting them played on white radio. This crossover had never happened before. There was white music and there was Negro music. Rock and roll was invented from this strange mix of all of it, rhythm and blues, folk music and electric surf music.
I know surf music in Berkeley? Berkeley had this community parade called the Parade of Lights. I think it was in the fall. As high school kids we would roam the streets looking for trouble. One night, we heard something surprizing. It was the sound of instrumental surf music. We had seen groups on television and heard some hits on the radio, but this was different because it was live. Suddenly, three guys on the back of flatbed truck appeared and they were really playing. They weren’t all that much older than us. They had solid body guitars plugged into little amps. I was dumb struck that they were playing electric music right in front of us. Although it would be a few years, the seed was planted. I wanted to do that.
From 1964 on (my junior year in high school) the Beatles dominated music. Folk music didn’t go away immediately, but something new was happening. I remember two reactions. The first from my Dad who loved folk music and had really supported Mark and I. He was appalled. The loud music, the long hair, the girls going crazy, he thought we had lost our minds. The other reaction came from my black friends. In Berkeley we were very much influenced by black music, mostly Motown, but independent artists as well. This was our black friend’s music and you could really dance to it. What they said about the Beatles was that you couldn’t dance to it. As much as I wanted to be cool and stay in the black music channel, there was something about the Beatles and this new white music that called to me. It was the beginning of dreaming of doing that.
Illudians – A Study in what is possible.
Since 1920 Berkeley High always had “social clubs. These were white, exclusive high school fraternities and sister sororities. The high school did not recognize them, but tolerated them. Each club has their own jacket (colors) that were not supposed to be worn at school. When you were an 11th grader some would get invitations to “rush” different clubs. Each had its own personality. One was the elite jocks, others were thuggish guys, others were greasers.
My friends and I went to a couple of these rushes and were not impressed. They were scenes right out of the stuck up frat in the movie Animal House. Now, for those of us that had come from the integrated Junior High, we were used to hanging out with our black, brown, white, Asian friends. We had good friends in all groups. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but a small bunch of us had this idea we would start the first integrated social club. This was against the background of civil rights demonstrations at UC Berkeley, so change was in the wind.
The idea took hold. All the black athletes, student leaders etc. said yes and they were complimented by a group of us progressive white guys. Some of the craziest in the school. We called ourselves Illudians. Don’t know where it came from, but we had brown sweatshirts made that said Slauson on the front. Some reference to Compton in L.A. This was our code. The other clubs weren’t happy about it, but we had some of the biggest guys in the school, so they didn’t mess with us. We became a thing. For me it was another oportunity in confidence building. We were cooler than sliced bread. In addition to athletes and student leaders we also had the best art guys. Actors, musicians, writers etc. We would stage dramatic events at lunch time like Shakespearean sword fights. We would be gone before the authorities showed up. We would cruise Berkeley with the top down singing at the top of our lungs and had the best parties.
One "beer" story from that time. We would decide to hold a "kegger" on Friday afternoons. Somebodies older brother would buy the keg. We would hold these things in remote areas of the woods behind Cal Berkeley. One time, we are just drinking away when two motorcycle cops come riding out of nowhere. We tried to scatter but the jig was up. They ended up being cool about it and just made us pour out the beer. A different era indeed. Here's a "bid" (ticket) to one of our infamous "Quiet Village" parties we held up in Tilden Park.
Another interesting thing that happened is that we sort of became un-official refs between the races at the school. There were still real racial tensions between blacks and whites and the hot heads on both sides would get into fights. We were the ones that sometimes broke them up and cooled tempers. The black guys handled the blacks and we handled the whites. It was a weird sort of authority role for this thing we had started for fun.
Early on we were having a “function” at someone’s house and one of the white thug clubs showed up and threw rocks at the house yelling things like “nigger lovers.” Just a slice of what was going on everywhere. We also had no sister club so any girl could become one of our companions. To show you the naivety of the 60’s, we actually had early Sunday morning events called "Shanghai's." We would call up the parents of the girls and said we were going to kidnap them early Sunday morning and take them to breakfast. They would leave the door open for us and made sure their daughters were in baggy pajamas. Those “breakfasts” were wild for the time. The parents thought it was funny. If they only knew. I never asked our parents what they thought as we would go out the door at 6am on Sunday morning.
When I went to my 50th high school reunion some of the Illudians were there. I asked them if they remembered that experience being as important as I did. To a man they did. It was a new kind of connection between the races and what I learned is to never be satisfied with the status quo. If you don’t like something, do something else. Create something new. This would influence me in my life many times ahead.
Running for Student Body Office.
Here’s the crazy thing. For someone like me that for the longest time had no self-confidence, I decided in my senior year to run for Student Body Vice-President.
I had no chance of winning, but as I opened up and stretched out I wanted to know what was possible. I printed up flyers, spoke at the political rallies. Things I would have never dreamed of doing. I got 900 votes. The winner got 1,300. I remember thinking,.. a lot of people I did not know voted for me. That was a new experience.
The Opposite Sex.
As I came into the age when boys start noticing girls, I remember thinking I had no idea what to do with them, although I liked to hang out with them more that groups of guys. We had all gotten the standard 7th grade sex education about how it worked, but when the hormones came raging we were literally groping in the dark.
My friend Maury had a big downstairs basement room that his parents had turned over to him. We used to gather up the girls and boys, turn the lights down, play Johnny Mathis records and make out until our mouths didn’t work. Very innocent. There were other kinds of touching as well, but this was all before birth control and we had it drummed into us not to get your girlfriend pregnant. That was fine in theory, but in the heated moments, it was hard not to do it all.
Girlfriends also became part of the norm. Coupling up was so expected. Lots of high school drama in the breakups and the betrayals. I had two "serious" ones in high school, Sharon and Nancy. Sharon was very adventurous. We ended up making out in hidden places at church, parking on Grizzly Peak until the cops came and sometimes at her house or mine when our parents weren’t home. Nancy was more A list and was my one flirtation with the IN group in senior year..
One particular memory has stuck. My parents went out of town and Bruce and Jane were somewhere else. That meant poker party with alcohol at my house. I was generally a good kid, afraid of getting caught, a bad liar etc. but for some reason I organized this. Go figure. To top it off I was the one guy who brought his girlfriend. The thought that my parents’ bedroom with a king sized bed was available was exciting. We left the guys downstairs drinking and playing cards and proceeded upstairs. Now we were used to cramped spaces like my car, the closet at church etc. so the King sized bed seemed huge. We started making out when something strange happened. I envisioned my parents coming home early and I just couldn’t do it. Sharon had a lot to drink and was wobbling, so I decided to take her home. About a 20 minute drive. I remember her being really drunk, so I just pointed her at her front door and took off. Nice…
When I got back to my house the poker table in the dining room was empty. I had this bad feeling. I walked through the living room towards the back of the house and saw the beginnings of a vomit trail that was all over the back door. I found the guys outside passed out in the ivy. What a scene. They stumbled home and I was left to clean up the mess. The vomit was everywhere. I took the back room bamboo rug out in the back and tried to hose it off. I had 24 hours to fix it before my parents came home. I thought I did a pretty good job, but when they walked in the door I knew they knew. For some strange reason they didn’t say anything and I walked around for a week dreading the “conversation”. As I see it this was the downside of my new found confidence. What made me think this was a good idea was lost in some 17 year old logic. It also points out the naivety of the sixties. As much as free love would come later, we were really very innocent compared to today’s culture.
I was always attracted to crazy friends both male and female. I loved their confidence. They were not afraid to take a risk. I was still pretty cautious at that point so I hoped some of their ways would rub off on me. One thing that meant was that I auditioned for school plays. The one I remember was Romeo and Juliet. It caused a bit of stir because our Juliet was black and Romeo was white. I played a guard. I had one line in the final death scene. That’s me in the front row far left. I think we had a saying..."guards rule!"
Sometimes these explorations were a bit "sketchy", so that would get us into trouble, but I loved their bigger than life demeanor. This would influence me to take more chances and be less afraid.
My First Car…
In western US culture, particularly on the west coast of America, cars were the thing. And what a revolutionizing concept they were. Overnight it seems, America went mobile. So, instead of the just the limited places you could go on a horse or train, you suddenly could go anywhere the road went. And they went everywhere.
Against that historic backdrop, one sign of coming of age in the 1960’s was learning how to drive a car and getting your license. In Berkeley, that started at age 15 ½ with a full license at 16. I remember wanting it so badly. Can you imagine how embarrassing it was to be still driven around by your parents at age 15? We had two cars as I hit 16. A big green Oldsmobile station wagon.
This had replaced the classic 1956 Ford station wagon with the cowboy seat covers of my youth. This car was huge and mostly my mother drove it or we took it on trips.
The other “second” car we had was a Ford Angelia.
This was a British import that was this little, very common looking yellow car. If a child drew a picture of a car, the Angelia was it. My Dad had gotten this car so that he could drive independently without hindering Mother doing what she needed to do. At this time in America, the second car was something that was growing in popularity as the middle class had more financial resources, but it was still somewhat a luxury.
One story. (Image above) We had taken both cars on a family vacation. I was riding with my Dad in the Angelia. Coming down a mountain pass, the gearbox suddenly locked up. That took us from 50 miles an hour into a full skid on a narrow road.. It was a miracle we didn't flip. It all happened so fast there wasn't time to be afraid. My Dad wrestled the car to a stop after crossing over the center line into the other lane. We both just sat there quietly. Sometimes shit happens... hopefully the angels are watching over as they were that day.
Now, in Berkeley at the time, being the capital of communist pinkos, the second car of choice was a Volkswagen sedan or soft top. VW vans would come latter as the hippy mobiles of choice. The VW bug was similarly ugly, but it had a clutch you could pop (manual transmissions were still in vogue) and go. The Angelia on the other hand being British had a really sensitive clutch that you had to let out very carefully or the car started jerking and bucking. For some reason, my Dad chose the Angelia to teach me how to drive. We started off in big parking lots and then graduated to streets. I remember being at intersections and trying to let the clutch out carefully. The car would jerk and jump if I didn’t do it right.
My friend’s families all had VW's so they didn’t have this issue. In due time I got used to it and on one magic afternoon after getting my license, I remember taking the Angelia out for a spin for no reason. I sat at the intersection of our street and Tunnel Road. You could turn right into Berkeley or left out towards Orinda and Walnut Creek. I turned away from Berkeley completely excited I could go anywhere. What a feeling of freedom. That began my romance with road trips. All my life I loved to drive to new places. Something about the road stimulated my creativity and I loved the beauty and the romance of the American West which I traveled extensively. Nothing better than cruising the old route 66 with my music turned up loud.
One last note on the Angelia. It was tiny by American standards so the front (bucket) seats pivoted forward to get in the tiny back seat. When I went out on dates, this was handy for going up on the view in Tilden Park. My girlfriend at the time and I would push the front seats forward and get in the backseat to make out. The windows of that Angelia were covered in stream from the cold night air many times during high school.
As I progressed through high school I started thinking about buying my own car. I had an older friend that loved to get old Morris Mini’s and adopt them for driving in the US. He would also alter the engine so they went like a bat of hell. I wanted one in the worst way and presented my case to my father. He (rightly) turned me down, concerned about the high performance of the Mini. When I went off to college, he gave me the Angelia to take with me. Until I bought my first car it was mine. It’s interesting to me that Mini’s have made a big comeback. First retro versions and now a whole line of Mini models painted in competition colors. They drive like a high power go-cart, so much fun!
Berkeley High Talent Shows.
Every now and then, Berkeley High had talent shows instead of regular assemblies. Berkeley High was lucky to share the school grounds with the Berkeley Community Theater.
This was a real theater with a big stage, lighting, a big curtain and seats for the whole student body. These talent shows were organized by the drama department and you had to audition. Mark and I (as the folk singing duo) tried out early and Berkeley being as racially mixed as it was, were often times the only white act. We were sandwiched in between black groups lip syncing to popular black music like “Duke of Earle”. So, you can imagine the courage it took to get up in front of the whole student body. The first time I was so nervous I dropped my flat pick on the stage and couldn’t get my shaking hand to pick it up. Mark and I did a bunch of these shows. It was the first time playing in front of a big audience. As nervous as I was, I loved it and it set the stage (no pun intended) for what was to come later.
When you are a child in a safe culture like Berkeley you don’t have much thought about death. It just doesn’t seem like it applies to you. What could happen? As I mentioned earlier, we had a brush with it when one of my friend’s older sisters was kidnapped and later killed right on the trail we all walked home from school on. I remember my parents being very upset, but it still didn’t register with me that death was always a life possibility.
Death came to me in two ways during high school. The first was the assassination of the President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was a very popular/inspiring man who set us on a path towards the moon and brought youth into politics, among many other accomplishments. (Kept us out of WW3 during the Cuban Missile crisis) Every one of my generation remembers where they were when the news came from Dallas. I was in English class just before lunch when our teacher walked in looking very shaken. He announced to us that the president had been assassinated. You could hear a pin drop. This did not happen in America. Little did we know that Kennedy was just the first of many in the Sixties.
I remember getting out for lunch and sitting very quietly with my friends trying to comprehend what had happened. These days violence and mass shootings are so common place, but in 1963, it was new and a sign that the times were changing.
The second incident was even more shocking because it was close and personal. One of my friends and a real presence at Berkeley High was Jim Shobring. Jim was a natural born leader, super smart and wildly popular. He wasn’t flashy, but very steady or so it seemed. I remember his welcome counsel one time when some girl broke up with me. He just seemed older and wiser than most of us. One day just 6 weeks before we were going to graduate, Jim didn’t come to school. This wasn’t that unusual. We all cut class or a whole day of school with faked notes in our senior year (I always got caught) so no one thought much about it in the beginning. We all laughed that Jim was with some girl on a beach in Marin.
As time went by and no there was no news of his re-appearance we started to take it more seriously. Had he run away? We formed teams and searched all the secret spots he might be. Nothing. I finally went home and over the radio came the news Jim had killed himself, a suicide. I remember half collapsing into the shelf the radio was on. My mother came running and put her arms around me while I started crying uncontrollably. This was not supposed to happen.
Soon after, I took the car (over my mother’s objections) and met up with my Illudian brothers. It was real quiet and awkward as no one knew what to say. Then something strange happened, the grief turned into nervous laughter as we began telling stories about him. Just a release really.
Jim’s death put quite a pall over graduation. Although you can never know why someone does anything, stories surfaced of trouble at home. Jim had been accepted at all the big colleges and there were some stories he felt pressure to make a decision. We all realized we had never been in his house or met his parents. Something indeed had darkened. The last thing I will say about this is the place he chose to take the overdose of pills was the big C, a big concrete letter located above UC Berkeley. It was a place we went sometimes, but it was not a place we searched. I guess we were sparred the trauma of finding his body. Things like this happen every day, but that first one you never forget. The fact that it was so unexpected was what made it so memorable. A first lesson in ‘shit” happens.
Normally, in the last six months of high school in a place like Berkeley, everyone starts talking about where they are going to college. However, with my checkered academic career this wasn’t a given. I had gotten decent grades the last two years, but my SAT scores were average (I didn’t test well) and there was no point applying to any of the big schools. And even if I could have gotten into Cal Berkeley I wanted out of town as quickly as possible. I had already spent a lot of time on that campus.
One day my councilor called me in and asked me, “so what do you want to do with your life?” Even though I loved playing music, the thought of being a professional had not arrived yet. She asked me what I liked… and I said something about planes. My Dad had worked for Pan American when I was younger and I loved going behind the scenes at the airport.
I also loved the 40’s movies about flying in the time before the Second World War. There was something romantic about it that was attractive to me.
Could It Be?
Later on I would have an experience that possibly shed some light on this attraction I had to that era. In the late seventies, I had gone to the theater to see “Midway”, a movie about the naval/air battle in the Pacific War in World War 2. The theater was experimenting with a new version of surround sound and it was so loud that it literally shook the seats in the scenes when the airplanes were warming up on the decks of the carriers.
I had a moment… suddenly I could literally smell the air on the deck of the carrier. The sea, the aviation fuel, the leather jacket I had on. It shocked me, but it was seemingly a memory that was very real. Later on I did a session of past life regression. They claim to take you back to some past life(s). As I closed my eyes and wandered back, an image of clear bubble over a plane cockpit came into view. I was flying through some clouds. Here’s the weird part, I was not American, I was Japanese. On the other side of the Battle of Midway.
It felt like I had been shot down and killed climbing to meet the Americans. That was 1942, so I would have been a young man in Japan in the period I was so attracted to. In this life I have also had a real issue with the "collective" mind of Japanese thought. Later, when I worked in Tokyo on a project it was very uncomfortable. The "hive" mind could really get people to do violent things. It was equally weird that I would be born again in 1947 on the victor’s side. Not sure any of this is real, but sometimes you just can’t explain what comes to you.
So, I said to my councilor… “planes." She responded "aeronautical engineering" because I had this engineering profile from the Pre-Tech program. I said so what... She said there were two top schools with aeronautical engineering programs. MIT in Boston and Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. I would end up at MIT later in life, but at that moment there was no hope of going there, so the seed was planted for Cal Poly.
At the time Cal Poly was a State University with 8,000 students on the Central Coast of California. It is now a major university with 30,000 students and entrance requirements I never could have passed. It specialized in architecture, engineering, early computer science and most of all agriculture. If you were a famers kid this is where you went to learn about animals and feed crops. No kidding. About as opposite to growing up in Berkeley as you could get.
So, Cal Poly came into the conversation. I was close to having the entry requirements, but just short. My grandfather wrote a long letter to the University pleading on my behalf and a plan did emerge. If I went to summer school (6 weeks at the end of summer) and got B’s or A’s in two classes I could get in. As I mentioned before I had this sports letter from San Jose State to play water polo, but I was tired of swimming and this seemed like something I could do.
At the time I had no appreciation for how lucky I was.
If Cal Poly had not worked out I probably would have gone to a local city college and would have been right in the middle of the Sixties revolution in the Bay Area. Sex, drugs and rock and roll would have been the play. Most of my friends that went that route dropped out and joined the movement for better or worse. I am sure if I had been there I would have done the same.
Graduation from Berkeley High came and went. It was the end of a long chapter. One, that in the last two years as a junior and senior, I began to find myself.
In 6 weeks I was going to be headed south to Cal Poly to attend summer school. A definite fork in the road that had many consequences going forward. One issue would come up on the drive with my Father to San Luis Obispo. I will talk about that later.
The Summer In-between
In some ways the summer in-between graduation from High School and going off to college is lost time. You feel that you are no longer a kid, but you really haven’t gotten to your young man thing yet. It was also an ending to friendships that had been around since grade school. Mark and I had finished out the year playing a lot of folk gigs including the BHS graduation party, but there was this elephant in the room for us. I don’t know if I had any fantasy about us going off to college together and continuing to play, but if I did that ended when Mark announced he was going to Pacific College in Stockton and I was headed to Cal Poly if I could make summer school work. There was one more thing waiting.
The City of Berkeley in those days operated family summer camps near Yosemite.
In all our family camping I had not been to one. They mostly consisted of tent cabins built around a dining hall. Later I would inhabit many of these camps in the backcountry of Yosemite in an upcoming chapter, but at the time this was new territory for me. This particular camp at Tuolumne had this long tradition that they picked musicians, actors and singers to be bus boys/girls and worker bees around the camp. At night you were expected to entertain. I joined a gathering where this was being organized. The only problem was that I didn’t have all summer. I was off to summer school in six weeks. Our reputation as a singing group may have had something to do with it, but they worked out a way I could work at the camp for six weeks and then go off to summer school. For me, it put off saying goodbye to Mark so I was pleased.
The gang of us that arrived was an eccentric bunch. Singers, musicians, actors etc. They gave us two multi-bunked cabins by the stream away from the main camp. Good thing, we were about to rage and celebrate our freedom. It was the summer of 65 and music was the soundtrack for changing times. We were of course into the Beatles, but one of the staff was totally into the Rolling Stones. They were gritty not cute. Paul Farso was a brilliant jazz pianist and he turned us on to all kinds of music and yes, getting stoned as we listened. Those six weeks were spent in kind of a wonderful haze. He would later go on to found the Loading Zone, one of the first generation San Francisco rock bands. Mark and I jammed with him, but our chops were really not up to rock and roll yet.
A couple of things did happen at that camp that were interesting. I was lifeguarding at the swimming hole one day. It was really a dammed up pool in the river. My vantage point was up on top of a rock in the middle of the pool. I watched a young mother bring her very young child down to the water. The child went into the water as the mother turned her back. She got lifted off the sand bottom and swept into the rapidly moving stream. I don’t know how it happened, but I came off the rock and got to the child quickly and pulled her to safety. The mother recovered and rushed us almost knocking the child out of my arms. I got her calmed down and everything was okay. I went to sleep that night wondering if I had saved a life. Pretty grown up stuff all of a sudden.
The other thing that happened was that the forest service organized some of us into a fire fighting team as an auxiliary to the real guys. We got some basic instruction (I mean very basic) and then we watched one night as a big fire crept towards the camp. We were not asked to fight it, but I remember looking at the wall of fire and then looking at the puny shovel in my hands and feeling in awe of the power of nature when she gets going.
The six weeks at camp screamed by. A couple of quick summer romances etc. and suddenly it was time to go. The gang walked me out to where the Greyhound bus stopped. I was to take the bus to Berkeley and then drive to Cal Poly with my father. We said our good byes. It was hard with Mark. We had grown up a lot together. I sat in the back of the bus as we pulled away looking at them waving so long. My life was about to enter a new chapter. I sighed and looked forward to whatever was in store. Little did I know that unexpected changes were literally a car ride away.