Thursday, August 25, 2011

End of the Road


But when summer was complete, half of each weekday of those under eighteen was in the hands of the four guardians of the institution of Alleghany school: Mrs. Hogan handled grades one through six; the principal Mr. Edmiston, a newcomer, handled math, science, and mechanical drawing (for which I turned out to be a bit less than inept); Miss Finney, another newcomer, handled English, Spanish, and typing; and arguably the most colorful of the staff, Mr. Biedermann, handled history and geography.

Mr. Biedermann lived on the high road a short walk from both the bell and the school, in a house perched on the hillside below the road, above which was a rare enclosed garage containing sometimes his IH Travelall, and always a pool table, whose use he offered to the high-school-aged on dance nights. He was the teacher known for having groups of students as guests at his house, making sure they knew that he was a Kentucky Colonel and offering a running commentary on politics and various historical characters. He was a bald, thin, amiable man of indeterminate middle age, with a resonant voice which helped enforce credibility.

My first driving experience, at thirteen, was on one of his field trips to Bullard's Bar Reservoir, a decidedly unpreposessing piece of civil engineering out a long dirt road. The dirt road, however, was well-graded and relatively broad, offering easy driving at modest speeds in the intrepid Travelall, so he offered the wheel to any who were interested enroute, and I took a turn for a few miles; I remember actually once moving the "three on the tree" to third gear, be still my heart.

The school was located about a two block walk from Casey's, with the town firebell midway between at the intersection of the low and high roads into town. The classrooms were in a building torn between one and two stories on a moderate slope, with a swing set between it and the gym constituting the playground. On the low side of the building was a volcanic rock upon which clusters of students might occasionally be found. Mr. Biedermann's distinction was echoed in the placement of his classroom, isolated on the low side of the building next to the rock. The main entrance in the story above took you past lockers and the lower grades, then the science room (at right, students looking out of the science room at a passerby), then the English/typing room/library.

Baseball had its season, and was played in a graded dirt lot a quarter mile away, at the low end of town, next to a substation and storage area for road clearing equipment and Alleghany's fire engine. A home run was roughly defined as the ball entering a weedy area where the grader didn't go. Given the logistics, we never had a visting team, nor did we elect to join a district competition.

On one day our P.E. was a walk to the ranger station at the beginning of the Pliocene Ridge Road, three miles one way on a winding, heavily-forested stretch of road carrying a handful of cars a day. Everyone cursed the long legs of Tommy Hogan, distinguished by being the grade-school teacher's son, the lone graduate-to-be, and the sole person capable of dunking a basketball in the gym, as we walked up and down the hills, gossiped, and engaged in backwoods badinage.

And in the matter of basketball: in this category, Alleghany's team did compete across districts, perhaps less because we had talent (mostly not), but likely because we had a gym with a distinct competitive advantage. The court length was significantly shorter, and goals were mounted shallowly on the ends of the gym, and the out-of-bounds line was inches from the back and front walls, so that the uninitiated player preparing for a shot a given number of steps past half court would find himself shooting at a more distant target. That advantage turned inside out when visiting, as we did in midwinter, a regulation court near Sacramento.

The only socks I could find before the game were red, so no doubt the opposing team thought I was Alleghany's star player, full of attitude - and they found out in two plays that both attitude and competency were absent. The reality became crystal clear to them; our team drafted any males of high school age to simply have five players and a sub or two. And all of us tired quickly running up and down the longer court, and tended to find ourselves shooting from behind the backboard - with predictable results.
(to be continued.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Protocol: A Death Down by the River Part V

(For Part I go here, Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here.)

On April 29, the two police assigned to watch over the homeless in the area, were instructed to perform another periodic sweep. All the homeless were told they had to gather their belongings and vacate the area by the next day. And they all would. And they all would return the day after that, back to whatever 'homes" they had left. And the Rangers knew they would return, and the homeless knew they knew, and that's the way it was. Years of the same drill had taught all parties their roles, and everybody usually played their role to perfection.

Danny's backyard property stopped at a small navigation ditch, beyond which was the back of a large car dealership. His wooden backyard fence bordered the ditch, and just beyond the ditch was another chain link fence that ran along the back of the dealership. Along this fence were several clumps of bushes and trees, and each of them was called home by one or two homeless people. Early the next morning, on April 30, Old Man Dan, a 60-ish white homeless man, was vacating the mulberry bush he'd called home for several years. It was behind the dealership and fairly close to Danny's house. He was used to the "gather your stuff and leave" routine, and was following the orders as he had been instructed. He had quite a few belongings; he grabbed many of them and walked down the fence along the back of the car dealership to Basler Street. He turned right and placed his stuff in front of a gate at the last house on the street he went back to the bush to retrieve his bicycle and a couple of other things.

Halford came out the front door and was about to open the gate to get into his car and leave for his morning coffee. Unfortunately, Old Man Dan's gear was in the way. Halford was infuriated and went in the house to tell Danny and Mark.

Old Man Dan returned with his bike just as Halford and Mark were coming out the front door Seeing Dan, Halford approached him and yelled, "Get this damn crap out of the way or you're going to regret it!" Dan looked at him and said he'd get the stuff out of there, but Halford kept yelling at him as he shoved and kicked him. Mark told Halford to stand back, which he finally did. Dan, shaken, gathered his stuff and left. Halford opened the gate, got in his car, and left for his coffee.

To Be Continued

Saturday, August 13, 2011

End of the Road


The floor space wasn't the only echo of a bygone era for Casey's Place, the first hint of commerce for those driving into town from the Pliocene Ridge Road. Its weathered sign suggested a twenties roadhouse; it had a rolling boardwalk running the length of the building enclosing it as well as the neighboring building; and said neighboring building had a human fixture on a bench, a sixty-something toothless mine pensioner named Claude who chewed and hocked disgustingly into a rusty Hills Brothers can all day, spoke like Dr. John sang, wore a tattered wife-beater and stained khakis, and was almost immediately dubbed Claude Balls by my family for his persistent itch.

Although the logistics of Claude's building remained a mystery for the two years of our residence, those of our building quickly became familiar. To the left of the bar was a slightly smaller room with a refrigerator and a coin-op pool table whose pockets tended to be cloth-stuffed afterhours, as well as a long-abandoned fountain counter and fixtures. To the left of that, a drafty bedroom where my father slept. Behind it, an equally drafty bedroom occupied by my brother when he was on leave, and by me when he wasn't. Sandwiched between that bedroom and the back half of the bar was our fairly cramped kitchen, with a fairly antique stove, and weathered institutional sink, basic built-in glass-fronted cabinets and drawers, and one of the ubiquitous tubular steel-legged, bowling-ball-pattern top tables of the era, the pattern here and there worn off from hard use. The landlocked kitchen was the access point to the claustrophobic stairways down to the basement and up to the attic. Behind the kitchen, an apparent afterthought projecting out from the rear and supported by pilings, was a service/sun porch through which you'd walk to get to the non-bar bathroom; the porch and bathroom sloped down and away from the rest of the building at perhaps a three degree angle, a fright for the vertiginous, and a standing joke for the residents.

For much of the time, my sister, mother and I slept in a pair of slant-roofed rooms in the attic on the bar side, a relative luxury in winter given some heat migration from the bar below to help the space heater's paltry output. A wall divided that space from a traditional cobwebbed attic with typically enchanting leftovers, a nineteenth century cash register, a moldy trunk, some fixtures. (The dirt-floored basement had even more exotica, a 78-rpm jukebox being the crown jewel of the castoffs.) But to sleep consistently on a Friday or Saturday night, it was necessary to relegate the sounds of revelry below to the same kind of status the hourly train rumble was given by those whose apartments adjoined the tracks in a city. I was only partially successful at this strategy; I still know most of the lyrics of Bobby Bare's "Detroit City", Johnny Cash's "Five Feet High and Rising", Ray Charles's "Born to Lose", and dozens of other favorites of the regulars that provided us little joy.

Some mornings before the bar opened, before my father was involved with the morning news and a drink, I would go into the bar to investigate it. It had a game that was like a blend of a bar-style shuffleboard and a pinball machine that my father would occasionally turn on coin-disabled for us, a fairly obvious attraction for a 13-year-old. But it also had some quite skilled caricatures of the local color rendered in watercolor, including a phlegmatic miner named Snuffy coming home from work, an Irish-American man and his wife of Italian heritage in Casey's, both of mercurial temper, she twirling a cat by the tail overhead, he hiding under a stool, depicting accurately a real event not long before our arrival according to most. And I'd look to see if anything of interest got added to the jukebox, "Peppermint Twist" being a case of a single not subject to too much wear. And, of course, there was the occasional coin, and I had developed scavenger's instincts in the years before, never failing to check the coin return on every handy pay phone.

But mostly, especially if school was not in session, entertainment was somewhat hard to come by for a non-adult. Some caught hellgramites for bait and fished in nearby Kanaka Creek, though the swimming was just fair. Some made ill-advised explorations of abandoned mines as I did a couple of times. You could shoot BB guns at the abandoned cars at the edge of town. You could see what comic books had arrived at the store, even if you didn't have the requisite money to buy.  Or (at left) there was a minimal hoop available in front of Casey's which at least had the advantage of few automotive interruptions. But reading Ian Fleming and sci-fi was as likely to occupy most of my summer days as anything.

(to be continued)

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Protocol: A Death Down by the River Part IV

"Upon arriving home, Justin found his window screen had been pried out, and there were bloody [raccoon] paw prints on the window sill. After a short investigation, he also found paw scratches on a jar of kitty treats and a bag of treats on the roof. But nothing compared to what was in the bathroom, where he found his six-month old cat blood spattered and dead, with his intestines ripped out of his stomach. Heart-breakingly, the bathtub was where his cat ran when he was scared." Nigel Chiwaya, The Funky Apple

In February, Danny was contacted by a friend of his in Los Angeles, Jay Halford. Jay was a playwright and was working on a piece that needed some music. Eventually, they decided that the following month, Jay would come up and spend some time at the house; he would continue his writing and Danny would help compose some music for the production. He moved into the house in late March for what was to be a five or six week stay. He bunked in the studio, the only place with any room for a sleeping bag and cot. Jay was a tall, 65 year old man, a little crazy looking as his eyes were not quite aligned, thin but still pretty healthy. He hit it off well with Mark. He had little patience for the homeless in the area, but contact was rare. He settled into a comfortable routine: up at 6:00, out the back door around 6:30 to his car, which was parked in the backyard: open the gate and off to a coffee shop for some caffeine and writing until around noon, then back to Danny's for lunch and some work in the studio trying to fit the music with his words. He was warned about Tommy Duke and saw him a couple of times, but didn't have much contact until April 25.

Tommy was extra frustrated that day. His musical aspirations weren't working out well and he partially blamed Danny, who refused to help him. So he figured he'd pay Danny another visit, maybe talk to him, maybe use a little "persuasion" to convince him to give him some lessons. But this time he wasn't going to let Danny stop him at the front door, plus he didn't want Danny's new caregiver in the picture. So he decided to break thru the backyard fence and come in the back door, maybe surprise Danny, and then talk some sense into him.

It was the afternoon; Danny and Jay had finished their work for the day. Danny was back in the house, in the kitchen, and Jay was taking a nap in the studio. Mark was out, running errands. Tommy found a loose piece of the wooden fence and pushed himself thru. He walked up to the backdoor which was unlocked. He came in and went into the kitchen, where Danny was sitting at the table. Danny had heard someone enter, but thought it was Jay, and when he saw it was Danny, he panicked. Tommy started talking to him, telling him he needed to get some lessons and Danny was the only one who could help him. Danny quickly picked up his cell phone and called Jay in the studio. Tommy came up to Danny and knocked the cell phone out of his hand, his voice getting louder, his manner more forceful. Almost immediately, Jay came into the room, grabbed a large kitchen knife, and pinned Tommy to the wall. He brought the knife right under Tommy's left eye and told him, "The only reason you're leaving here with this eye is because of your daughter." He then escorted Tommy out the front door and off the property.

Mark returned shortly thereafter. Danny was distraught and the mood in the house was anxious and tense. Danny had called 911, but they told him they couldn't do anything unless the perpetrator was actually on the premises. Mark and Jay finally calmed Danny down, but the incident was an indelible reinforcement of the notion that Tommy Duke just wasn't going away.

To Be Continued