Former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll published a column about Thanksgiving and gratitude every year. The bones of it, and most of the meat, remained the same, but he continued to update it annually to reflect the changing times or his evolving wisdom.
Five years ago, when I was first starting this blog, I wrote a poem about July 4 that I would like to re-publish today. Its bones and meat are the same, but in the spirit of Mr. Carroll, I’ve cooked it up a little differently.
If I’m ever convicted of capital crimes, and afterwards sentenced to death, I know what I’ll want for my very last meal, just hours before my last breath.
Don’t give me a pile of hummus, my friends, not caviar nor any peas. Don’t make it a gourmet, artisanal feast; just give me a cheeseburger, please!
You can skip buying brie or Jarlsberg cheese; a big slab of cheddar’s delicious. Whatever you do, don’t add a fried egg – by God, that is just sacrilegious!
The bun can be laden with gluten and lard, the beef need not come from Japan. You can grill it or broil it, on stove or on flame, in a cast iron skillet or pan.
Its invention is claimed by multiple folks. Some say it was born in the west; Some say Kentucky and others say Denver and everyone thinks they know best.
Well, whoever decided to slap on that cheese and throw that ground beef on the grill Should have earned a gold medal, a Hollywood star, and a monument up on a hill.
The cheeseburger’s part of a glorious feast of distinctly American things. I hope we remember, this Fourth of July, the blessings our citizenship brings.
I suggest as we gobble our hot dogs and pie, and drink a Sam Adams (or two), That we put down our phones and reflect on the things that this country allows us to do.
If you shut your eyes tightly and listen quite close, you’ll hear the American song: A racecar’s low roar on a Darlington track, a freightcar chugging along.
A carousel ride at a carnival fair, the crack of a bat on a field, Guitars being tuned on a boardwalk stage, a church’s bell vibrantly pealed.
A tenorman wailing just before dawn, the whoosh of an eagle in flight, The choice of a dozen talk-radio shows to make us less lonely at night.
A cowboy’s rough boot on an old tavern floor and a trucker unpacking his load, Sinatra’s voice and a shot of good booze and another one just for the road.
Now open your eyes and take a good look at the landscape we’re privileged to share. Strap on a backpack and camp ’neath Sequoias and drink in the starry night air.
Pack up a Winnebago, instead, or hop on an overnight train, Cross mountains and desert and wide fields of corn to the rocky coastline of Maine.
Rev up your Harley or jump in your car and seek an alternative byway Like Route 66, or the Purple Heart Trail, or the fabled and eerie Blues Highway.
Marvel at Rushmore’s eminent shrine, see Nashville or old Santa Fe, Silently raft through a bayou down south, go crabbing in Chesapeake Bay.
Or pull on your blue jeans and pick up a book, if you feel like you want to stay in. Read some Walt Whitman, or try Langston Hughes, or spend some good time with Huck Finn.
Try watching a classic western, perhaps, directed by Sturges or Ford. With all the saloons, and all of the barfights, and all of those whiskeys poured.
Check out some different musical styles, some truly American voices: Leadbelly, Seeger, Guthrie, Odetta, are some of the earthiest choices.
Put on some hip-hop, some ragtime, or jazz, take records out of your trunk, And listen to Usher, or Redbone, or Ella, or low-lying New Orleans funk.
While we count all our blessings, let’s never forget the rebels who once brought us here: A gallop at midnight through Lexington’s streets and the warnings of Paul Revere.
Or the valorous statesmen whose brilliant resolve established the new Declaration, As they swore on their fortunes, their honor, their lives to the fledgling and sovereign nation.
We’ve made our mistakes; God knows there’ve been plenty, and they’ve come at a terrible cost. Consider the Native American tribes, and the lives and the lands that were lost.
Consider the sins that slavery wrought, remember the crosses that burned. Consider the immigrants scorned and demeaned, remember the families interned.
But call me a patriot, call me naïve, allow me this simple contention: That our modern-day impulses lean towards the good and are rooted in noble intention.
Think of the nurses, think of the cops, our pharmacists, farmers, and teachers. Think of the folks who deliver our mail, the factory workers, the preachers.
Think of our immigrants chasing their dreams while leaving their countries behind. Think of their hope, and think of their grit, not knowing quite what they will find.
America’s pluralism shores up our strength; we’re bolstered by all our dissension. If one group completely misses a wrong, another group then pays attention.
So how ’bout we root for the underdog, leave lights on for neighbors in need, Let’s offer our hearts to the wayward man, and bandage our comrades who bleed.
Test out the roads less traveled, my friends. And tamp down the cynical snark. Let’s honor the heroes who gave us their lives, and the artists who left us their mark.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
July 16, 1973 [age 17]:
“I was left alone again this weekend, so yesterday I endeavored to cook a meal by myself, consisting solely of a hamburger steak. Though I did manage to successfully heat up a pot of canned gravy, I also managed to destroy the hamburger. Every time Mom leaves me directions she says to put the burner on ‘two,’ and every time without fail I forget and use the quick-speed burner and – instant frazzle. The moment I threw the hamburger in, the instant there was contact between meat and cast iron, it turned black. So I tried to turn it over and it broke into a million tiny bits. It looked like dog food. I’m such a clod.”
July 17, 1973 [age 17]:
“Today began with a visit to the eye doctor and then to the optometrist, resulting in my finally winning the endless battle [with my parents] and choosing a pair of wire frames. I was thus consecrated a ‘hippie.’ ”
July 19, 1973 [age 17]: [NOTE: THIS ENTRY SHOULD WIN THE OSCAR FOR EXTREME MELODRAMA]
“I’m feeling desperately sorry for myself. Things are not going quite as I had thought, or hoped, they would. Pat is still not here, and I had hoped he would teach me how to dance. I’m missing Jeanne more and more. I’m realizing more and more that this is going to be another lonely summer, that I can forget about playing tennis altogether, that Jeanne is not going to be around any more. And working six days a week is wearing me out, grabbing hold of every spare minute of time, preventing me from doing the reading, and, more importantly, the writing I did so want to do this summer. My world is caving in on me; it’s getting hard to breathe. O, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I’m despairing, all my hopes shattered, countless broken dreams.”
July 21, 1973 [age 17]:
“I went to the [St. Victor’s 8th grade] reunion today. It was fun (though I ate too much) and super seeing everyone. But then I began drinking wine and beer, and for some reason I lost my head and kissed Mike [xx] and he tried French kissing which I’d never done, and I was revolted.”
July 27, 1973 [age 17]:
“The only thing of note I did today was go to the dentist. There, after miraculously surviving the fluoride ordeal [fluoride always made me gag], I was told that I still have to have a crown put on one of my bottom molars. Apparently, the filling is chipped beyond repair. It must be done, despite my protests and agonized looks. After Mom’s description of her experience with crowns I dread the whole process. She tells of hours of drilling, of reducing the poor tooth to a mere point, of driving a gold wedge into the gum. It sounds ghastly. After all my childhood encounters with the Dentist, times when in my traditional submission I endured pain without complaint, I now find myself reduced to a frightened baby. I both fear and hate dentists with surprising intensity, and I wonder if I will be able to last until August 13th without committing suicide.”
When Margaret Valentine LeLong decided in 1897 to ride a bicycle, alone, from Chicago to her home in San Francisco, everyone implored her to reconsider. No woman had ever dared try such a thing. Dangers abounded: wildlife, marauders, injuries, dehydration. Bikes at the time were clunky one-speed bonebreakers. And the roads, which offered peril even to the ordinary automobile, often were full of mud, rocks, chuckholes, and planks.
There were no bike lanes. There were no sag wagons. There were no fast-food joints or convenience stores. There were no motel chains. And there were no cell phones.
So the odds were heavily stacked that year against Ms. Margaret Valentine LeLong.
Bicycles had been available in this country since about 1877, when they were first imported from England. Called “ordinary” bikes, they sported the huge front wheel and tiny rear wheel we’ve all seen in Victorian-era drawings. They were slow and difficult to ride, and both easy and painful to fall from. For all that, the cost was almost prohibitive, except for the wealthy; priced at $100, the bikes would set us back about $2,596.83 in today’s dollars.
But then came the “safety bike” at the end of the 1880s, and it was chock-full of innovations. The wheels were now the same size. A drive chain, a front fork, and a leather saddle became standard. Tires were pneumatic; rather than being constructed of sold rubber, they contained pressurized air, which made for a smoother (although far from luxurious) ride. Best of all, the price “plunged” to $60 – still outrageous, but at least more affordable.
Because of these changes, the number of bicyclists in the U.S. grew from 150,000 to up to 4 million between 1890 and 1896. It was an absolute explosion in the industry. Biking elicited a fervent passion among Americans; it enabled people to get away from their reliance on horses and offered an escape from increasing urbanization – while providing exercise and a good dose of the sun. And for women in particular, bicycling was a literal vehicle towards achieving freedom and independence.
In San Francisco (where, frankly, “a good dose of the sun” was rarely applicable), allegedly 65,000 bicyclists (half the population!) filled the streets – dodging streetcars, horses, and pedestrians – during the 1890s. Bicycle clubs sprang up everywhere, and although most were for men only, a ladies’ group called The Falcon Bicycle Club (FBC) also got started. An 1895 photo remains of their clubhouse – an old horsecar – out on the dunes of Carville on the western edge of the city. Surely Margaret Valentine LeLong was a member.
By the way, the FBC often held dinner parties for local notables, newspapermen, socialites, and bohemians of all stripes. Among the hilarious satirical descriptions the club sent to the local press was this one from August of 1896:
“A most delightful banquet was given last Saturday evening by the FBC. . . . The following was the very unique menu:
Soups – Whalebone, Lampwick, Corncob and Lozenges.
Fish – Carp, Octopus, Catfish and Cartridges.
Game – Pedro, Oldmaid, Smut and Cribbage.
Entrees – Brown Beans, Baked Beans, Barnacles, Spidertoes, Froglegs and Frangipanni.
Vegetables – Bunions, Soft Corns and Halpruner.
Relishes and Booze – Mother-in-law Fried, Roasted, and Deviled; Ice Cream, Doorjamb and Vaseline; Sponge Pies and Leather Pies, with or without Buckles; Cream Coffee and Chocolate; Café au Lait and Rouge et Noir; Good-night Kiss and Dream of Grandmother.”
I wish I could have been at THAT party!
It isn’t readily apparent why Ms. LeLong decided to ride her bicycle thousands of miles alone, and my guess is that she would have been scornful of anyone who dared ask that question. San Franciscans in those days were an independent lot, she was visiting friends in Chicago, and according to the Chicago Tribune, she did it “purely for enjoyment.”
We don’t know much about her. None of the (very abbreviated) newspaper accounts mentioned her age at the time – perhaps it was considered uncouth. But the Tribune’s six-sentence mention of her feat did manage to include a description of her as a “slender little woman” who stood 5’2” tall and weighed 114 pounds. (Obviously those were crucial statistics.) It also referred to her as “Mrs.,” but her own account of her experience never mentioned a husband or family back home.
[By the way, her name was spelled “LeLong,” “Lelong,” or “Le Long” in the many resources I checked, and I’ve decided to use “LeLong,” just for consistency’s sake.]
Ms. LeLong formulated her plans “[i]n spite of the opposition of every friend and relative who was on hand to register a protest (and those at a distance objected by mail),” she would later say. And although her loved ones’ opposition may have been related to the inherent dangers of her trip, resistance to the very notion of female bicyclists was quite strong. In some states it was altogether illegal for women to ride. Cycling was considered to be so challenging for the female constitution that it could lead to insomnia, depression, and heart problems. It could cause “bicycle eye,” which occurred when a rider had to look forward too long while her neck was bent. Worst of all, it could bring ruin to “the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity.” The Woman’s Rescue League of Washington, D.C., apparently claimed that bicycling prevented women from having children. Another charge was that the “friction between a woman and her saddle caused illicit sexual arousal.”
Ah! No wonder women flocked to bicycling in droves!
Then there was the matter of attire. Women had been accustomed to wearing skirts while riding side-saddle on horses. But some female cyclists thought that long, flowing garments could get caught in bicycles’ moving parts, so they chose bloomers instead of skirts. Bloomers were loose, harem-style pants, some of which fastened – gasp! – under the knee. Oh, the scandal!
A huge backlash ensued. One mayor condemned the new pants for being a “menace to the peace and good morals of the male residents.” In 1895 three bloomer-wearing female teachers were prohibited from riding bicycles to their school in Flushing, Long Island (New York). The scandalous pants had come to represent women’s rights and freedom, and people were simply outraged!
Margaret rode a “drop-frame” safety bicycle (with a low, curved cross-support) because the standard cross-bar used by men would get in the way of her skirt. Yes, despite everything I’ve just said about women’s liberation and bloomers, Margaret preferred skirts.
In any case, she climbed onto her bike in Chicago on May 20, 1897, dressed in her skirt and her leather shoes – laced to the knee – that she had had modified with heavier soles. Bicycles were yet to come equipped with baskets, so she brought only some extra underwear, some toiletries, a handkerchief, and a tool bag – all of which she somehow managed to strap onto the handlebars. In her tool bag was her final essential item – a pistol.
“And so one morning in May I started,” wrote Ms. LeLong in the journal Outing in 1898, “midst a chorus of prophecies of broken limbs, starvation, death from thirst, abduction by cowboys, and scalping by Indians.”
The Illinois roads at first proved to be rider-friendly, for they were generally smooth and level. But from the get-go the headwinds were a formidable demon, and even Margaret’s attempts to get up before the chickens were fruitless. “Let none flatter themselves they can get up before an Illinois wind,” she noted wryly, “for it blows all day, and it blows all night, and it always blows straight in your face.”
On one occasion, the combination of wind, mud, hills, bogs, and swirling sand convinced her to stop early in the day at a hotel in a small Iowa town called Homestead, where she would “spend the rest of the day expressing my opinion about the League map of Iowa, which is a snare and a delusion.” She would also spend the day trying to comprehend the norms of the town’s denizens.
In the mid-1800s, Homestead had been purchased by the Amana Colonies, a group of German Pietists who were originally members of the Lutheran Church but were persecuted in Germany by both the government and the Church. They’d relocated to the United States – first to New York and then to Iowa – in search of some seclusion and peace. The Colonies operated as truly a self-sufficient and communal settlement for 80 years, relying exclusively on their own farming and craftsmanship until they formed a for-profit organization during the Depression (and by the way, the Amana appliance cooperation was part of that organization).
“These are some of the things I learned,” she would later write. “The Amanna [sic] Society is co-operative in the fullest meaning of the term . . . . Everything is community property, and the man who joins the society with only the clothes on his back has the same rights and consideration as the man who puts in thousands. . . . Each male member receives thirty dollars per year spending money, in addition to his living; each female member, twenty dollars. This sum they are entitled to spend as and where they please, but permission to leave the settlement must be granted by the council.
“All business of the Amanna Society is transacted by the council, and the purchase of even a sheep or a keg of beer is a task requiring much time and patience. One would think all that was necessary was the proper amount of greenbacks and negotiations with the head shepherd or brewer. These are but preliminary steps. It involves consulting every member of the council, from the shepherd to the president, and back again. . . .
“I am afraid their laws for the management of lovers would not find favor among our American youth. If a young man shows a more than brotherly interest in one of the pretty blonde mädchens [young girls], and she shows a disposition to be more than a sister to him, an investigation is immediately made, and if he declares his intentions serious – other things, such as parents, being propitious – he is allowed a farewell interview with the maiden, and then hustled away to one of the other settlements, there to stay one year [ed.’s note: whaaaat?] to prove the strength of his attachment. If his intentions are not serious, he is hustled off just the same, but without the farewell interview. Every May-day all the unappropriated maidens, dressed in their Sunday gowns, are loaded into gaily decorated wagons, and, blushing and giggling, are taken the rounds of the settlements for the inspection and selection of the unattached men.”
Ms. LeLong’s overnight stay in Homestead, although it yielded neither a suitor nor a gourmet meal (“beer soup” did not particularly appeal to LeLong’s San Francisco sensibilities), nevertheless was filled with the proprietor’s warmth and kindness, and her stays for the rest of the trip were similar. Despite the social mores of the age, her gender was never questioned, nor was she ever threatened by another human.
It was far from easy mechanically to ride a bicycle in those days. Balance was tricky. The coaster brake (which is engaged by backpedaling, and which many of us had as kids) was not invented until 1898, so Margaret’s bike likely was equipped with a heavy front “spoon brake” and nothing on the back wheel – always a recipe for taking a header over the handlebars. And the roads – well, they were like angry opponents. In San Francisco, the year before her trip, more than 5,000 bicyclists had marched down Market Street in a rally for decent streets. Paved asphalt was not yet the norm, and the country’s rutted and cratered roads – even in urban areas – were often nearly impassable. Someone with an eye for poetry once called them:
“Wholly unclassable Almost impassable Scarcely jackassable!”
Nebraska came next, and for a cyclist, Nebraska was more preferable for riding, even though the scenery in Iowa had been lovely. “Iowa is described in the guide-books as a ‘fine, rolling country,’ ” she wrote. “For the cycler this means that you roll your wheel up one side of a hill and down the other, with never a level spot between to rest the sole of your foot upon. This is especially true of the western part. If you can forget your grievances against the roads long enough to stop and admire, the scenery is beautiful beyond description. What a relief to a weary wheelman to cross the muddy Missouri and go skimming over the smooth gravel roads of Nebraska. In Iowa the road will go several miles out of its way to climb a hill; in Nebraska it makes some attempt to go around.”
Wyoming, of course, brought mountains, trees, and stone, and the landscape toughened. As a result, one nearly regrettable decision resulted in a rather painful battering for Ms. LeLong. She’d decided to take the “Happy Jack” road between Cheyenne and Laramie, which was about 52 miles at the time and a bit shorter than the alternative. The road (what is now Highway 210) was named in the 1880s after a local rancher who, while transporting lumber and hay to Cheyenne, earned the nickname “Happy Jack” because he simply would not stop singing. But the Happy Jack Road did not, for Margaret, prove altogether happy. I’ll let her tell the tale in her own words, which are far more eloquent – and funnier – than mine:
“A two thousand foot rise in thirty miles, and a thousand foot drop in the other twenty-two miles is the record of the ‘Happy Jack’ road. For twenty miles the road is good, and the grade gradual, then trouble begins. Up and down, in and out, over rocks and through sand runs the Happy Jack road, and at every mile your breath comes harder and your knees grow weaker. . . . Numerous dents, bruises, and abrasions on myself and wheel mark the moments when I became lost in admiration of the wild grandeur of the scene, and forgot that I was riding a bucking bronco of a bicycle.”
At one point Margaret flew off of her bike at the bottom of a particularly unnavigable hill. Fortunately a log cabin sat at the bottom of the cliff.
“I landed at the bottom without breaking neck or wheel, though the two men who came out of the cabin seemed to think I ought not to have a whole bone in my body.
“I was not asked to dismount. I had already done that on all fours, with the wheel on top, but I was invited in to dinner, with true Wyoming hospitality. Mr. Shaw, the owner of the place, the famous ‘Cabin Under the Rocks,’ cooked the dinner, scolding all the time, in a good-natured way, because I had not arrived sooner, and there was nothing left but scraps. If that was a dinner of scraps, then may I always dine upon scraps. Fresh antelope steaks, mountain trout, caught in front of the door, and canned peaches from my beloved California, all washed down with milk that had never known the pump.”
But she still had to find lodging. I don’t know why she couldn’t stay at Mr. Shaw’s cabin, but propriety and a lack of a spare bed may have dictated the situation. Or perhaps it was too early in the day (late afternoon, I presume) to consider bedding down for the night. Her host advised her that halfway between the cabin and Laramie was a place called “Dirty Woman’s Ranch,” where she could stay.
On the way, of course, she took another tumble.
“A long, steep hill, with a barbed-wire gate strung across it half way down; a barrel-hoop in the middle of the road, and a badger hole at one side. Thirty seconds later add to the scene on one side of the road a woman, all of a heap; on the other a pea-green bicycle, and down by the gate a brown hat and white veil. I carefully wiggled around and found no bones were broken, then sat up and began to cry. Then I laughed, but the laugh had a hysterical sound, and I quit. There is no use having hysterics all alone, eight miles from the nearest house. I wonder what women would do without hairpins. I took one out of my hair and picked the gravel out of my knees, and cried some more; got up and straightened my handle-bar, put on my hat wrong side before, wiped my eyes and started again. I will confess that for several miles I saw the road through a mist of tears. Eight more miles I made somehow — just how I don’t know — then the house I had despaired of finding that night came in sight.”
But the Dirty Woman’s Ranch had no beds. (I know; I don’t understand, either.) It was after dark by then, and about 12 further miles to Laramie, with no houses in between. So a stranger, who happened to be milking his cow nearby, threw her in a wagon and set out for a house on another road altogether.
“Behind two bucking, half-broken broncos, in a wagon without springs away we went – away we went over boulders that jolted me off the seat down on to my poor, lame knees, into the bottom of the wagon. Every time the driver slowed up, in response to my agonized plea for a moment’s rest, the broncos bucked. Down we went into canyons, black with shadows of night, through passes where the rocks seemed to meet over our heads; up over ridges, where we lost all trace of the road, and crashed along over sagebrush and boulders.
“Twinkling lights almost beneath us, the yelping of dogs, and a chorus of profanity, told us that our arrival had been noted at Cazorus’ cattle ranch. Down, down we went, I with both feet braced against the dashboard, and a silent prayer in my heart, the broncos kicking, and the driver swearing.”
But they made it, and Margaret was met with a meal, bandages, and a great deal of sympathy.
It was while she was still in Wyoming that Ms. LeLong’s revolver came in handy. She’d just finished wading through a marsh when she noticed that a nearby herd of cattle was starting to size her up. The prevailing wisdom for such a situation was, counterintuitively, to advance slowly towards the herd, shouting and waving one’s arms. “This sounds very simple sitting safely at home with your cattle before you in the form of roast beef,” she said. “It is a very different thing when facing a pawing, bellowing herd of cattle in the middle of a Wyoming cattle range, your knees knocking together, and your heart making quick trips from your head to your heels and back again; every nerve tingling with a wild desire to run and no place to run to. Not a tree, a bush, a rock, or even a telegraph-pole.”
So she drew her pistol and fired five shots in the air, “scattering handkerchief, curl-papers, and powder-box to the winds to get at the cartridges in the bottom of my chatelaine bag. I loaded as I ran.” Much to her relief, the noise prompted the cattle to first run in circles and then, thankfully, retreat.
Leaving Wyoming behind, Ms. LeLong was delighted to be traveling through the Weber Canyon in Utah – a place whose beauty she found to be “little short of Paradise.” Her only complaint was that the creeks were generally not bridged, and sloppy irrigation ditches resulted in standing water everywhere. On one occasion she was rescued “from a maze of creeks and mud-puddles” by two men returning from a fishing trip who immediately invited her to share their bounty – 400(!) trout. After they made camp and the men were preparing the fish, Margaret “was unanimously elected to make biscuit. Now I can make biscuit, but I want all the modern improvements in the way of utensils. Here I had neither mixing-board, rolling-pin, flour-sifter, nor biscuit-cutter, so I take credit to myself that those biscuits were eatable at all. We baked them in a Dutch oven, and many burnt fingers and much merriment resulted from trying to get them out.”
Unsurprisingly, Margaret’s journey across Nevada, through the Great American Desert, was anything but picturesque. But after the desert came the greatest payoff. “From Reno to San Francisco the roads are good, the scenery beautiful, and the water like wine after the alkali of the desert,” she wrote. “At every turn of the wheel I felt my spirits rise, and when I finally crossed the State line and stepped once more on California soil I wept a little weep for joy.
“You who have had only tantalizing glimpses through the cracks of the snow-sheds, know but little of the beauty of the scenery between Truckee and Blue Canyon. It amply repaid me for the many miles I had to walk and push my wheel up the long, steep hills. One day among the snow and rocks of the summit of the Sierras, the next spinning along through orchards of the Sacramento Valley where the trees were bending with their burden of fruit. Although the scenes around San Francisco bay had been familiar to me for years, they seemed wonderfully new and beautiful to me. The Oakland Mole seemed the entrance to Paradise, and San Francisco, Paradise itself.”
Margaret Valentine LeLong cruised into San Francisco on July 8, which was 50 days after she left Chicago. I’m going to guess that she covered 2,500 miles, because she certainly didn’t ride in a straight line, which means she averaged about 50 miles a day. Her record was 86 in one day, which impresses me greatly because I get tired just driving 86 miles.
The major newspapers of the day covered the end of her trip and granted the story a couple of sentences. The Hayward Daily Review was the most long-winded:
“She was on the road . . . without a puncture. She made the journey not to save expenses, for it cost twice as much as by rail, but for the sake of the adventure and the experience. . . . She did her own washing, had the good sense not to try for the record, and rested when she was tired. . . . On the way she lost eight pounds, made a detour from Ogden to Salt Lake, rode the railroad track for numberless rough and bumpety miles, and walked an average ten miles a day. She is muscular as few women are, and is as brown as the proverbial berry, for she even tanned her hands through her thick chamois gloves. But she is not the least bit footsore or weary, and she would do it again.”
Researching stories like these often leads me down divergent paths. An interesting coda to this tale is that a fairly well-known artist named Minnie Valentine LeLong lived in San Francisco at the time. She’d been born Minnie Valentine Cox in Iowa in 1863 (she married Charles LeLong), which would have made her 34 years old at the time of the bike ride. Could she have been our cyclist? Well, “Minnie” indeed can be a nickname for Margaret, and one illustration in the Outing article about her trip was attributed to “Le Long.” But in those days women were typically married by the age of 34 and probably would have been deemed much too old for cycling alone across the country.
Considering that her writing was so witty and creative, though, it is not a stretch for me to imagine Margaret as an artist. Besides, how many M. Valentine LeLongs could there have been in San Francisco in the late 1800s?
I just don’t know. I suppose it will remain a bit of a mystery.
In any case, whether she was a distinguished gallery artist or not, Margaret had much to be proud of. She was a fearless young woman, boldly progressive, pioneering in spirit, with strong legs, a quick wit, and unrelenting optimism.
“To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play,” declared Munsey’s Magazine in 1896. “To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”
Margaret Valentine LeLong happily rode her steed into the unknown, her face turned towards the sun. She was, I think, the best of America.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
3/2/73 [age 17]:
“I worked the register at Rexall for awhile today and then got shown the “ring-out” procedure, which is how to count money and checks and get everything ready for the bank, which took an hour and a half of explanation and I don’t think I remember a thing. I am so stupid. My feet and body are tired, but cashiering was fun and I did work for three hours ($4.65); if I work 20 hours a week, I’ll make $31 (not clear), so maybe $100 a month clear. I like the cute little kids with all their change. The only strange part was walking the mile home in the pitch black and rain, but even that was nice. I whistled the entire second side of [the Simon & Garfunkel album] ‘Bookends’.”
“I am disappointed that Joe did not show up last Friday. I do not want to remain an old maid forever. There are guys in my AJ [law enforcement] classes whom I like but they are either too old or not aware of my existence. I recall my old heartthrobs and how they slid by the wayside. But I can understand – I’m almost entirely devoid of personality.”
3/8/73 [age 17]:
“Mr. O’Neill died last Wednesday; I missed the rosary tonight because I was at work. Death puzzles me exceedingly – I wonder if people’s demise is caused by merely Fate or if God has a hand in it and people are somehow ‘chosen.’ If so, what would be the criteria? Last summer, I thought people died when they ‘perfected this level’; I was under the ridiculous assumption that I was nearing such a state, and that I would die within two years ([my sister] Janine said in summer of ‘74 she’s going to give me a ‘still alive’ party). Father Prindeville says God wants the person with Him in heaven. I don’t worry incessantly about death as Dad does, but I’m not exactly looking forward to it.”
3/10/73 [age 17]:
“Boy, was I embarrassed at work today. I was behind the counter with Mr. Jordahl and a guy came up and asked for some Trojans. I didn’t know what they were, so I yelled back to the pharmacy, ‘Mr. Jordahl, where are the Trojans?’ I guess the whole store could hear me. Well, Mr. Jordahl came scurrying out and told me he’d help the man. Afterwards he showed me where they were (down behind the counter on the right-hand side), although he gave me no instructions. I finally realized that they were rubbers! I just don’t know anything about them! And boy, was my face red!”
3/23/73 [age 17]:
“I had a two-hour break today at school and since, miraculously, my homework was all caught up I decided to wander. Priorities were 1) food, 2) books, and 3) records. Unfortunately since it is Friday, I was forced to eat a fishburger at McDonald’s. [Ed.’s note: no meat on Fridays!] I roamed around in a bookstore which professed to be cheap and as it was completely unorganized I became disillusioned and left. Finally, I looked up record stores in a telephone book and found Discorama, which turned out to be so wonderful that I am sure I will frequent it on many Fridays. They have used albums and I bought ‘Reflections’ by the one-and-only Johnny Rivers for 73¢.”
4/8/73 [age 17]:
“I am trying the carbohydrate diet, so after work today I had 13 pieces of chicken, counting dinner and after-dinner snacking.”
4/9/73 [age 17]:
“Mom went into Rexall this afternoon. And when she returned, she informed me of a conversation with Dorothy, the Post Office lady who works there. Apparently Dorothy commented on how mature (???) I was, and said that they all love me. Boy, does THAT shock me. I was getting really paranoid there for awhile; I mean, I AM awfully clumsy – last week I ran right smack into the big tall vitamin display and the next day knocked a metal coffeepot off the counter. Perhaps they pay much less attention to those things than I do. (I don’t even know if Mr. Jordahl noticed the coffeepot incident, yet I don’t see how he could help but hear the parts clanging all over the floor.) At any rate, it doesn’t appear that he has any intentions of firing me.”
4/10/73 [age 17]:
“[A friend] finally wrote to me and told me about her first sexual encounter and I am STILL A-1 confused about it all.”
4/13/73 [age 17]:
“I swear – I had a test in every one of my classes today and I did not study one moment last night. I really had intended to, but [my brother] Marc called me downstairs to play Password and Stadium Checkers with Joe and Morris and him, and I was so tired by the time we finished that I went straight to bed. I think this no-carbohydrate diet is contributing to my perpetual exhaustion. Still, I am greatly shirking my schoolwork. So I got up at six this morning and got to school by 7:30 so I’d have two hours to study for History. I did, but then I had no time to prepare for Philosophy. I’m sure I didn’t exactly pass with flying colors. I DID manage to get another “A” in Biology, though, which I studied for after I ate lunch and spent a bunch of time listening to the Stones in the listening rooms. I really should crack down on myself.”
4/15/73 [age 17]:
“Well, it happened again. I had intended to get so much schoolwork done today and I didn’t touch it for ONE SECOND. I went to the 10:30 mass and since it’s Palm Sunday it lasted until close to noon. When I returned I cleaned my shoes and did a few other jobs until I was invited to play poker with the four boys at Joe’s and could not resist. I won almost a dollar, which just about paid for my movie ticket tonight. We all went to the Serra and saw ‘Bless the Beasts and the Children’ and ‘Last Picture Show.’ The day didn’t end until midnight. I had no time whatsoever to study.”
4/18/73 [age 17]:
“This morning I was back home from school by 9:00, cooked myself a breakfast of four scrambled eggs and three slices of bacon, cleaned up the house, and let the dog run loose while I read endless pages of History in the garage. At 1:30 I began walking to work because Mr. Jordahl wanted me to come in at 2:00 to learn about some insurance work. I had had a lunch of five slices of Spam – two with cream cheese on top. I worked my seven hours. Now it’s 10:00 and I just finished my bath. My dinner will consists of tuna and cheddar cheese and root beer as [our neighbor] Mr. Morrow told me that ice cream and pie is awaiting me over there.”
“Presenting ‘Another Rotten Thursday’ or ‘Paula the Klutz Does It Again.’ The day began well, with Jeanne’s overdue letter not arriving only a minor disappointment. At eleven or so I took off for Judy’s [on my bike]; I visited with Robin and her for awhile, then rode to the library to browse through the records and try to find a book on the physiology of emotions for my own interest, but could find none. Well and good. At 12:30 or so I set out for Sue’s. Upon arriving at Hostetter, I saw that the right lane was closed and I’d have to walk the bike through mud. I decided to continue down Capitol to Trimble or Landess. I put some air in the tires and nervously rode on because I hate chancing Capitol. The road narrowed; I waited for a clear space and then pedaled a mile a minute down the edge of the road. A truck was coming; I zipped on, my right front tire hit a 1/2-inch crack, and I was thrown out onto the road, bike on top of me, right in front of the truck. He screeched to a halt; I crawled out slowly from under the bike, people were stopping to ask if I was hurt, I dazily [sic] shook my head no (I was on half a hay fever pill), and trembled all the way to the Chevron station at Trimble. I was scared, now that it was over. I decided to call Sue to come get me; I was quaking when I discovered she wasn’t home. So I called Judy and she came. It was when I tried to put the bike in her car that I realized how sore my left hand was; it still is, and swollen too, so I guess I’ll have to tell the parents when they get home. O Lord, and how I used to disgustedly tell them, ‘Oh, I’m NOT going to get hurt!’ Robin came over later to help fix the bike (it was mostly just twisted) and to talk about life a little. That was nice and I appreciated it. Then when I went in to take my shower, I spilled Mom’s bath powder all over. I vacuumed it up and when I took the vacuum hose off in the sewing room, I spilled all the powder all over again! So I vacuumed it up again. I’m such a clod. Then Mr. Morrow took his family and me out for pizza and I blew my diet. Geez, what a day!”
May 2, 1973 [age 17]:
“I got trapped in a stall in the bathroom today and had to crawl out. The space between door and floor was minuscule and I was forced to slither out like a snake – a rather undignified position.”
May 9, 1973 [age 17]:
“I am actually going to have electives to take next semester, but the classes at [San Jose] State are just too general for me. My preferred four electives would be a whole class on Walt Whitman; one on rock music; one on the history of World War II; and one on parachuting.”
May 15, 1973 [age 17]:
“I just remembered that I used to pray FOR God: ‘God bless Mom and Dad, Marc and Paula, Janine and God.’ How absurd!”
“Jeanne and I took off for San Francisco at 1:30 today to see Paul Simon. Mr. Schwegler had given us directions to the Opera House to pick up the tickets, and with me navigating it was a nightmare of confusion. Once we got to the City I think it took us another hour and a half to get there – our map is outdated and didn’t show all the one-way streets! At one point we even ended up coming on the freeway BACK towards San Jose! We decided to go to the museum in Golden Gate Park first to pass some time, and we finally got there at 4:30, only to discover, after we had paid, that it closes at five. Good grief! Getting to the Wharf to eat dinner was another example of poor navigation, and the Fish ‘N Chips I suggested when we finally got there were awful. After stopping on Van Ness to get a couple cans of Coke, four boxes of Milk Duds, and three packages of M&Ms, we made it to the Opera House with an hour to spare, but I spent all that time running up and down the streets of San Francisco trying to find a place to change into nice clothes. But Paul Simon more than made up for all our trials. Afterwards Jeanne and I stayed outside to wait for him and he came out and walked right by us (with Art Garfunkel!) and he is very short and I just can’t describe how wonderful it was.”
May 24, 1973 [age 17]:
“I forgot to tell about my Philosophy oral report last Friday. I had typed up a technical document of about six pages beforehand, but due to a total lack of rehearsal, the other three members of the group took too much time, leaving me only eight minutes. Realizing my lack of adequate time, I began skipping areas and then lost my head altogether, ad libbing about the soul and consciousness and ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ – oh, I was classic. And do you know that I got an A on it? And I made everything up!”
“Last Tuesday I went to see a counselor to talk about my woes concerning the generalness of school. I was hoping he would tell me about some unknown programs – maybe one where I could go to Paris for a year and study for free, or one where I could be transferred to another school and study ‘Law Enforcement in Vermont.’ Ah, but there was no such luck.”
May 28, 1973 [age 17]:
“I’m beginning to detest my appearance. First of all – my hair. I must be the only college student in the world with bangs. My hair is too thick and heavy, and now that the weather is hot I’m beginning to be annoyed by it. If I don’t chicken out, I may cut it all off this summer. Then, my face. Yecchh. All broken out. Mrs. Czarnecki claims that Harry and Judy were saved by Vitamin C, so I bought myself some chewable tablets and I’m beginning to take them every day. Thirdly, I’m obviously too fat – 135 pounds. My legs are like barrels. Fourthly, the upper half of me is so darned small. How humiliating. And finally I cannot get a tan and my skin is so white I look sick.”
June 7, 1973 [age 17]:
“I went with Jeanne to her Birth of a Poet class at Kresge College [UC Santa Cruz] today. Th teacher is William Everson, who used to be called Brother Antoninus and is a beat poet! I was so excited to see him, especially now that I’ve been reading ‘Visions of Cody,’ BUT the class was in a sweltering dome at a temperature of (no exaggeration) 110 degrees. There were a bunch of students with no shirts on who had painted themselves, and it was so hot that all the paint was running down their skin. They were like human watercolors! I’ve never seen anything like this and I would have appreciated it more but to tell you the truth I was just miserable in that heat. I wish I could have stayed overnight in the dorm but Dad would never have allowed me to sleep in the midst of a mob of ‘hippies.’ “
June 11, 1973 [age 17]:
“Sometimes I simply cannot understand my feelings towards human beings. Am I a humanitarian, or do I totally hate mankind?”
TBT, 1969 or 1970 [age 13 or 14]:
[NOTE: This is something I found in my files a few days ago. I have no recollection of it, but it appears that I was writing my future bio: tongue-in-cheek, but grounded in wishful thinking.]
“Bocciardi (Bo CHAR dee), Paula, 1955-. Great athlete, musician, comedienne, detective, intellectual, and politician. Plays on professional football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis, swimming, badminton, track, squash, soccer, lacrosse, equestrian, and sky-diving teams. Received highest awards in all sports. Took Gold medal in all events in 1972 Olympics. Set mile record – 3 min. 31 sec. High jump – 8 ft. 3 in. Pole vault 30 ft. 2-1/2 in. Long jump – same. Broad jump 11 ft. 9 inches. 50 yd. dash – 4 sec. Longest sky jump – she was dropped from a rocket. Better than Glen Campbell at the guitar, better than Liberace at the piano. Voted world’s best comedienne. Wrote 56 books – all million sellers. Ranked no. 1 detective. Apprehended criminals of all crimes since 1901. In 1970, shot 3 times in leg, 2 times in arm, 5 times in head, once in stomach, yet managed to bravely crawl away and handcuff the crook. Joined up with the Hardy Boys. I.Q. of 187. Able to outwit everyone, even Mr. Romero [my English teacher]. Was senator, governor, and finally – 1st woman President! A great person truly.”
June 16, 1973 [age 17]:
“Yesterday at work [at Rexall drugstore] a hippie-looking guy asked me, ‘Where are the (mumble mumble)?’ I couldn’t exactly understand him but it sounded like he said ‘breast bracelets.’ That seemed kind of repulsive to me but I figured it must be part of the new cult or something I walked over to Dorothy and said, ‘uh, could you help this man?’ She was busy at the post office and said, ‘Well, what does he want?’ I tried to act cool and said that he wanted some breast bracelets. She looked very puzzled but then he wandered over to the wall and we heard him say, ‘I found it!’ He came back with some Binaca. I guess he had actually said ‘breath sprays’!”
June 17, 1973 [age 17]:
“Last night Judy and I went to see ‘The Harrad Experiment’ and ‘Lovers and Other Strangers’ at the Meridian Quad theaters. For the first time in my life the people at the door were making everyone prove that they were 17, or maybe 18, I’m not sure. I’m not an ‘adult’ yet so I was kind of scared but either I look old or my CSUSJ student body card was indicative of my age ‘cause they let me in. I wondered why the rigamarole but I got my answer when I saw ‘The Harrad Experiment.’ Total frontal nudity, time and again, boys and girls! I was nauseated by the talk about how if you follow society’s conventions and want one faithful partner you’re being possessive and selfish! That’s just bull!”
I’ve also saved the lives of Jenna Bush, Amy Carter, both Obama girls, and Ron Reagan, Jr.
As you can see, I haven’t been partisan.
These fantasies (yes, none of this really happened) have been a part of my evening ritual for decades. I go to sleep each night imagining myself to be the hero I have always wanted to be. In these scenarios I never knew that the people I was rescuing were public figures. And sometimes, but not always, I would sustain gruesome injuries.
So why did these people falling from burning windows have to be the children of Presidents? Because I figured that only then would I be invited to appear on the Johnny Carson show and be lauded as a hero in front of millions of Americans.
(Never did I consider the fact that Presidents’ children might have had Secret Service Protection and would more likely have been rescued by someone with sunglasses and a gun. That would not have fit well with my design.)
I hear people overuse “amazing” so much these days that I could just scream. If everything and everyone is amazing, then nothing is amazing. Let me tell you something: a horsefly can catch a pellet fired from an air rifle. Now, that’s amazing.
Along those lines, the other overused word that gripes me is “hero.”
As I’ve said before, to me a hero is someone who throws himself on a grenade. He risks his life to save another person or, on a larger scale, his family, his community, or his country. And he is selfless. He does it for neither fame nor money.
(Needless to say, a hero doesn’t have to be a man, but I didn’t want to get too mired in pronouns here.)
So if I ever really do catch someone falling from a burning building, would that act fit the definition of heroism? I’d say so, unless before I started my sprint I yelled at an onlooker to film the whole thing so that I’d go viral and end up on Colbert.
My great-uncle Reuben Steger, whom I discussed at length in “Their Last Full Measure,” was a true hero. He absolutely knew he was going to die at the Battle of Buna in World War II when he saved at least half a dozen lives running through machine gun fire to drag his wounded men to safety. Eventually, on the sixth or seventh foray, his luck ran out. He was 25 years old. The Army gave his parents the Distinguished Service cross he earned for “extraordinary heroism.”
Of course, one needn’t die in order to qualify as a hero. A couple of weeks ago I read a news story about Chief Warrant Officer Joe Rosamond, a helicopter pilot with the CA Army National Guard. Thirty families were trapped at a place called Mammoth Pool in the wilderness, taken by surprise when one of the California fires came raging at them at a savage speed. All ground attempts at reaching the stranded campers had failed. A rescue effort by a CHP helicopter had likewise failed. Another plan had been diverted because the air conditions were so hazardous. Finally the operations commander called off all rescue attempts, but Rosamond was already in his chopper and on the way, not to be dissuaded. He was determined to save those people or die trying, and frankly, there was a good chance he would. He couldn’t make out anything past half a mile, even through his night-vision goggles. By the time he landed on a boat ramp, his own windshield was black with ash and it was impossible to see through it. Then he had to go back twice. Twice. The operation was so harrowing that afterwards he would liken it to his missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He saved 214 people.
And what about Harriet Tubman, the brutally-beaten slave who escaped and made 19 return missions to rescue dozens of slaves using the Underground Railroad, each time putting herself willingly in grave danger? Had she been detected, she would have been drawn and quartered.
Or the unbelievably courageous divers in 2018 who rescued 12 young boys and their coach from a cave in Thailand. The undertaking was physically treacherous and mentally terrifying. All of the kids, and their coach, survived. But one of the divers, Saman Kunan, died of asphyxiation in the cave. (Another one, by the way, died 10 months ago from a blood condition he contracted during the rescue.)
Or Amy O’Sullivan, who made Time’s list of 100 influential people last month. A long-time ER nurse, she helped care for the first COVID-19 patient at Brooklyn’s Wyckoff hospital. A short time later, she came down with the disease herself and spent four days intubated, hooked up to a ventilator. After two weeks she went back to work.
When we were very young, my siblings and I had an album called America on the Move. It was part of the 1959 multi-LP set “The Golden Library,” which featured collections of patriotic tunes, songs about faith, nursery rhymes, and other music. One of our favorite songs from the album was “Casey Jones,” about the railroad engineer who gave his life for his passengers on his “farewell trip to the Promised Land.” I actually have a one-minute recording of the Bocciardi kids singing this tune in 1962:
Jones, a railroad engineer, died in 1900 at the young age of 37. On his last run, with six cars of passengers, the train was heading out of a blind curve when the engine’s fireman spotted a freight train parked on the track ahead. It was too late for Jones to stop, and he knew it. After yelling at the fireman to jump, Casey stayed aboard, blowing his whistle and braking the train as it went crashing through four of the freight train’s cars before leaving the track. He spent his last moments on earth mitigating the potential effect of the collision on those for whom he had responsibility. All of the passengers (and the fireman) survived. Casey did not. The story goes that his body was found with his hand still clutching the whistle and the brake. He was a true hero.
But what about those who display extraordinary selflessness without risking their lives?
I’d like to call attention to one of my favorite ballplayers: Buster Posey, the storied catcher for the San Francisco Giants.
Sure, he has potential Hall of Fame stats, is a six-time All-Star, won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2010, and was the National League MVP in 2012. But he’s not a “hero” to me. I think it’s ridiculous that we so commonly apply that label to athletes who hit baseballs or sink baskets or score touchdowns while playing a game they love and pulling in more money annually than most of us will ever see cumulatively in our lifetimes.
But there’s something special about him that I recognized when he first came up with the Giants. He went about his business quietly. He wasn’t a showboat. His teammates immediately looked up to him. I’d say that he’s been a steadfast role model.
But this season he proved to be much more than that.
Just a few days into the summer preseason, Buster had just finalized the adoption of twin premature baby girls and had been told that after spending at least four weeks in neonatal intensive care, the babies would have vulnerable immune systems for a number of months. He reported to camp for a day or two but was visibly tortured. After talking to doctors, he made a decision that was personally excruciating but, for him, clear-cut.
He opted out of the 2020 baseball season altogether.
“These babies being as fragile as they are for the next four months, at minimum, this ultimately wasn’t that difficult a decision for me,” he said. “From a baseball standpoint, it was a tough decision. From a family standpoint and feeling like I’m making a decision to protect our children, I think it was relatively easy.
“My wife, I, and our other children are just overwhelmed with joy to welcome them into our family to love them unconditionally and just share life with them.”
Buster and his wife Kristen gave up $8 million when they made this choice.
Now, let’s face it, that’s a drop in the bucket for them and will make no difference in the quality of their lives whatsoever.
But Posey also gave up a season of, for him, just a few dwindling seasons left. He is 33 years old, and for a catcher, that means he’s nearing the end of his playing career. After a lackluster 2019 as a result of postsurgical difficulties, he’d been absolutely tearing up the first Spring Training in early 2020, hitting a whopping .455. This had the potential to be a dominating year for him – perhaps his last. Yet he opted out. For most professional athletes, that would be tantamount to torture.
The most noble among us, though, are willing to devote ourselves to causes well beyond our own self-interest. To country, or community, or family. Buster and his wife have been struggling to adopt – which in and of itself is a selfless act – ever since they had biological twins in 2011. But meanwhile they have been devoting their energies to the Buster and Kristin Posey Fund, which is dedicated to battling pediatric cancer through awareness and research.
“It’s not acceptable,” Buster once said about childhood cancer. “We can’t sit here and talk about how bad this is, we’ve got to try to help.”
To whom much is given, much will be required.
Buster has given back in abundance. Not just talk, but action. Not just money, but time. He’s what a man – especially a man of means – ought to be.
He has character.
So I want another category. I want a category for people who make personal sacrifices for others, even though those sacrifices might not involve life and death.
I’ve decided to use “lodestar.”
Buster Posey is my lodestar. Add that to his legacy.
So as I sit here today on this metaphorical pier, at the edge of the Pacific, while the country rocks and swells and stumbles darkly behind me, I think of all the lodestars still lighting our way. I think of all the great men and women who silently, and without acclaim, provide reason, patience, calm, truth, integrity, and sacrifice.
Ever the optimist, I believe that, with time, they will help bring us back to our once-noble home.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
9/20/72 [age 16]: “Oh, I am so excited by the prospects of learning. All the books I’ve gotten – they all are filled with so much wonderful new information that I want to read very word and to keep them forever. I don’t like the early hours of college; in fact, I have to pick Robin up at 6:45 tomorrow because she has to get there especially early. I don’t like my lack of sleep. And of course my laziness makes me extremely adverse [sic] to studying, or any kind of work. But the bright promise of learning – I think it is worth everything.”
9/21/72 [age 16]: “I wonder if I am the only near-17-year-old in the entire world who has had such a meager love life. I am so-o-o-o lonely for real companionship. I don’t think there is any guy I really like right now, and I may never have the chance to. I am young, have a weird voice, and am far from good-looking. In fact, I’m not sexy at all, and I suppose I suffer from lack of feminism [sic]. My face . . . oh, yecch.”
9/27/72, ONE WEEK after starting college [age 16]: “Boy, I’m so tired! College requires such a large amount of reading – I get headaches every day now. Between tons of homework and my daily Bible reading (which takes quite a bit of time) and my daily letters and baths and hairwashings and homework, I never have time for FUN anymore!”
10/4/72 [age 16]: “At dinner tonight, Dad told me that my dear beloved [former high school teacher] Mr. Bernert told him that whenever he hears that ridiculous song ‘I’m the Happiest Girl in the Whole USA’ by Donna Fargo, he thinks of ME. I’m still trying to figure out what he could possibly mean.”
10/4/72 [age 16]: “Our first biology field trip today was to Alum Rock Park [in San Jose]. I enjoyed it, because, besides the fact that I am in love with Dr. Shellhammer, the teacher, I now have a far greater ecological appreciation for the Park. And to think I used to call it a dumb place . . .”
10/5/72 [age 16]: “I had the ‘tremendous’ privilege of seeing the Vice-Presidential candidate Sargent Shriver today at [San Jose State]. I was with Mary Pasek, and I almost fainted. Why? Because 1) it was very hot and I had on a sweater OVER a jumper, 2) there were 4000 people there, 3) I hadn’t had lunch at all, and 4) I suppose he wasn’t too thrilling for me to listen to.”
10/14/72 [age 16]: “Since Sue came home this weekend I took her and Barb to Baskin’s and Robbin’s tonight. Night driving scares me. Then we came to our house and talked. I loved it. Sue is religious now, very into the Bible, and she is exceedingly happy, just in the way she talks it shows. We talked of religion, mostly, and once more I felt warmed over with love for humanity. Mom laughed at the whole affair, saying, ‘You feel obligated to be worldly. Why can’t you talk about fishing, like boys do?’ ”
10/16/72 [age 16]: “It was strange, but Mrs. Espinosa called today (you know, the school nurse who I went skiing with) just to see how I was. It was really nice. The thing is – I honestly keep wondering to myself how anyone could LIKE me, let alone care enough about me to call. I mean, I’m such a quiet, sullen, moody, morose person.”
10/18/72 [age 16]: “Our Biology field trip today was to Villa Montalvo, and Dr. Shellhammer walks so fast that the rest of us have to jog. But I did so willingly; I have developed a passionate love for running. I first saw that in the movie ‘Tribes,’ where the guy claimed that he could do any physical feat by putting ‘mind over matter,’ and I then thought it was a bunch of bull, but now I really believe it. When I am running, I can daydream – as long as I am not running uphill, where concentration is required.”
10/25/82 [age 16]: “I got my second English paper back today with a B- on it. I have always taken great pride in my writing. It would not be too bad if Dr. Haeger’s comments were justifiable, but I disagree with 95% of them. I like my word choice better. Also, I certainly am not going to change my style. The fragments, dots, dashes, etc. that I use are not accidental grammatical errors; they are techniques I use on purpose to contribute to the effect of the paper. Hmmm. Last week I claimed that I had no interest in grades. Perhaps I should rescind that.”
10/27/72 [age 16]: “I was thinking about [San Jose] State today, how I love it but I hate it. It’s far too big. There are so many people that I’m forced to be alone, solitary in the midst of others. Is that understandable? There is no chance to cultivate any close friendships, or really get to know anyone. We have 25,000 students! I spoke with Yolanda Parra today and she seemed so open and loving. But she gave me a blank stare when I mentioned my ‘there are so many people that I feel all alone’ theory. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m a ding-a-ling.”
10/28/72 [age 16]: “[My friend] Judy came over today at 12:30 and we worked on her essay on busing for 4 hours. Actually, I wrote the whole thing – just dictated while she wrote it down. I’m glad I could help, but – what do I know about busing??!”
10/29/72 [age 16]: “Tonight I asked Robin over to watch ‘Yellow Submarine’ and a Peanuts special, where my beloved Linus won an election! I love him – he’s so cute and kind and wise and intellectual. He’s my man.”
12/5/72 [age 17]: “Barb and I rode up and down the elevators at Duncan Hall yesterday. We had just eaten an entire bag of too-salty cornnuts on empty stomachs. Then these elevators – in Duncan Hall they’re so FAST that your stomach exits. We got in two separate elevators on floor 6 and rode up and down trying to find each other. Eventually we did, but only after I’d gotten a million drinks of water on a million different floors . . . plus the cornnuts, plus the elevators – Barb and I were so nauseated. We each went home, took two aspirin, and went to bed.”
12/11/72 [age 17]: “Gadzooks! Robin has decided to have a wild party sometime during Christmas vacation. I guess it’ll have all the vices, bar none. For some totally absurd reason I would love to go, so that I could at least know that I have been in a tempting environment and have resisted it.”
12/12/72 [age 17]: “I have almost resigned myself to the notion that there is no possibility of my ever becoming lucky enough to fall in love. And how can I live my life alone? True, I am young, but I see future repetitions of my present daily, weekly, monthly, yearly pattern. It’s almost unbearably depressing, yet I remain clinging to the hope that perhaps someday I will stumble miraculously upon him. In the meantime, I sit and wait . . . and cry every once in a while.”
12/19/72 [age 17]: “I’m still worried about Law Enforcement and if I will indeed remain with it. There are so many things I want do to: be a psychologist, work with the physically handicapped, read to old people, get people off drugs, write, be a cop. And I don’t think that I could do everything at once. And the thing that I would really like to do, above all else, is to move out and go to college for 50 years. Of course, I’d have to have a part-time job on the side.”
12/23/72 [age 17]: “Another rotten day. Both the 49ers and the Raiders lost by way of flukes in the last few seconds. Pittsburgh caught a deflected pass near the ground and ran a touchdown in the last 5 seconds to be victors over the Raiders. And the stupid Cowboys scored two touchdowns in the last 2 minutes to wrest victory from the deserving hands of San Francisco. The only good thing was [my cousin] Ronnie’s appearance. I love just looking at him – he’s so cute and now he has a moustache. A pleasing sight is no substitute for sweet victory, however.”
12/25/72 [age 17]: “About all I do up here [in southern CA at my grandparents’ house] is listen to music. [My uncle] Fred brought over his two-record set of Neil Diamond’s live concert at the Greek theater (which he and [my aunt] Jackie witnessed) called ‘Hot August Night.’ It’s an eight-dollar record! While I listen to that I’m writing an entry for my journal about the past year called ‘Shades of 1972 Revisited,’ which is so lengthy I may never finish. Otherwise, I’m wearing the grooves out of ‘Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Songs for Beginners.’ I don’t write while I listen to those because I love them so much that I need to listen intently.”
1/5/73 [age 17]: “Once again, for the jillionth time, I feel terribly guilty. [My friend] Robin has decided to move out tomorrow – has even informed her parents – and I didn’t discourage her in the least. I feel as if I’ve contributed to the ruination of a young person’s life. She doesn’t have much money, and her parents will be hurt. Will Robin regret it forever? Will she go off the deep end, as I believe she already has? (I heard rumors, partly verified, that at her party she gave a couple of weeks ago there was a lot of ‘making out.’)”
1/6/73 [age 17]: “It was once again brought to my attention today that as far as practical knowledge and skills go, I am a total failure. My complete uselessness in the household infuriates Mom to high degrees. But I need not know how to cook exotic things for myself, because I can easily subsist on hamburgers and root beer.”
1/8/73 [age 17]: “Our tennis class was cancelled today so Barb and I took the bus (a first for me!) to her house where I had rice and egg fu yung and won ton soup. Wow, what a lunch! Her parents were astounded at my universal appreciation of food.”
1/12/73 [age 17]: “We came up to Clearlake today and I’m freezing to death. One small fire and an inadequate heater cannot warm my perpetually shivering body with their meager warmth. Small things make me happy, though. They bought us a colossal bag of sunflower seeds, which makes my studying much more enjoyable.”
2/1/73 [age 17]: “My constant praying has paid off. The wait in line outside from 6:00 to 10:00 to register for this semester was not too bad. I had on long underwear (with no bra – it felt weird), my yellow sweatshirt, Levis, and my blue jacket. The only parts of me that got cold in this freezing weather were my feet – they turned numb. I was number 83 in line and got all the classes I wanted AND the sections I wanted! (except tennis, so I took badminton) God is a great guy, but today he was exceptionally terrific.”
On a beautiful May day in 1954, on an innocuous ballfield in Charleston, South Carolina, two Negro League professional baseball teams faced each other in a preseason game. It wasn’t a particularly big deal for the players. The dry infield dirt, as usual, crunched under their spikes. Gloves were oiled, rawhides roughed. But looking back now, it’s clear that that moment was definitely a big deal. Three of the players warming up on the field that day were women. They were the only women, in fact, to ever play professional baseball.
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson was pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns. Infielder Connie Morgan was on the bench. Toni Stone was up to bat for the Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson had been throwing a shutout until Stone stepped into the box and sliced a base hit to the outfield. But she took a careless lead on the next pitch and Johnson picked her off first. It was baseball as usual, but they were not the usual ballplayers.
They were the girls of summer.
Baseball as usual, of course, has disappeared for now, and we don’t know when it will return. I’d been planning on writing about these three women for nearly two years, but I backed off when I learned that a play about Toni Stone was due to open in San Francisco this March. Frankly, I was incensed that the theater company had stolen my idea.
Because of the pandemic, unfortunately, the live production of Toni Stone didn’t happen. Yet perhaps now, more than ever, we need stories like these. You do not have to be a sports fan. This story is about much more than that. It’s about sexism, racism, talent, and guts.
From her earliest days in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, where most of the Twin Cities’ black population lived, Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone had an absolute obsession for baseball. She thought of nothing else, dreamt of nothing else. “Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping, I’d go crazy,” she said. But it was the 1930s, and her parents thought it was unnatural and unseemly for a girl to be crazy about a “boys’ game.” On top of that, Toni wasn’t at all interested in makeup or dresses or boys or any of the girlie fascinations that were thought to be “normal.” Everyone called her “Tomboy Stone,” and it was not necessarily a flattering moniker. Still, no one could deny that she was the best athlete, of any gender, in the neighborhood.
Stone started out playing in a summer Catholic boys’ league because a priest named Father Keefe needed someone to beef up his church’s ballclub. She then joined her high school softball team but quit after a year because the pace was too slow. But one spring day in 1936, at the age of 14, she stopped at a local park to watch a bunch of young white ballplayers coached by a man named Gabby Street, who had once played for the San Francisco Seals and the Washington Senators and who was then managing the minor league Saint Paul Saints. On that particular day, he was running a baseball camp for white boys in the area. Toni desperately wanted to play, and she was unaware of the fact that her race and gender were two strikes against her. Two strikes meant nothing to her anyway. So she began a campaign of relentlessly haranguing Street so that he would allow her to prove her skills.
Although Stone didn’t know it at the time, Gabby Street was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The group’s activities had begun to wane nationally, however, and the last Klan meeting in Minnesota had been held seven years earlier. Street began to wear down. “I just couldn’t get rid of her until I gave her a chance,” he said later. “Every time I chased her away, she would go around the corner and come back to plague me again.” Second base was her preferred position, so he asked her to field grounders and hit a few balls. And he was more than impressed. A few days later, on her 15th birthday, he bought her a pair of baseball shoes, and she thought it was a miracle. She had never owned anything “official” like that. He also allowed her into the baseball camp. Those white boys couldn’t believe their eyes when a black girl walked onto the field.
But she quickly proved her mettle.
Although Toni was not a good student in high school, she became an astute student of baseball in that camp. The game is packed with more nuance than those who don’t follow it could ever imagine. Under Gabby Street’s coaching she also honed her athletic abilities and learned the more intricate skills, to the extent that she was asked to join a few summer barnstorming teams of amateur African-American ballplayers. In addition to her comfortable position at second base, she’d play center field on those teams and sometimes even take the mound to pitch.
Barnstorming teams typically were based in cities that had no major league teams, and they spent much of their time on the road. (Note: The Minnesota Twins, formerly the Washington Senators, did not move to Minnesota until the 1961 season.) Keep in mind that in that day and age, being on the road for Toni and her teammates was not all fun and games. On one of Toni’s trips to Bloomer, Wisconsin, with her Twin City Colored Giants playing a white team, the man announcing the lineups blithely declared over the loudspeaker, “And now the starting lineup for the niggers.”
After dropping out of high school at the age of 19, Toni left her barnstorming Minnesota teammates behind and hopped on a bus headed for California, to see “what was over there on the other side of the fence.” Her sister Bunny lived in San Francisco, where men and women of all races had come to work in the shipyards. It was 1943, and the war effort was increasing. Toni had no idea where Bunny lived, and depending on when she would later re-tell the story, she had somewhere between 53 cents and $7 in her pocket. Her belongings consisted of a few items of clothing, her Goodwill baseball glove, and the cleats given to her by Gabby Street. To find her sister, the only thing she could do was comb the city’s streets. Incredibly, a few days after she arrived she was walking down a random alley when Bunny happened to look out the window and spotted her!
As I’ve written before, San Francisco is a mix of cultures, with so much to offer that any marginalized person can come here and find identity and acceptance. That happened to Toni. “I love my San Francisco,” she once said. “I had my hardships there. But they treated me right. Old San Francisco folks taken me over.” She had long had a passion for jazz, and the city’s Fillmore District was alive with it. She would hang out in Jack’s Tavern there, not only listening to the music but engaging in conversation with people more worldly than those she had known in her neighborhood back in Saint Paul. It was there that she would meet Aurelious Pescia Alberga, the much-older man whom she would eventually marry. He and the owner of Jack’s got Toni a spot on a local American Legion baseball team. Needless to say, she was the only woman on the squad. The team was part of a junior league, which required its players to be 17 or younger. It was now 1948, and Toni was 27 years old, so she decided to “change” her age by subtracting 10 years from it. It got her onto the team, but it also was the genesis of a long lie, and in years to come her fake youth would create unrealistic expectations and prove to be more of a hindrance than anything else.
Ultimately Toni found a place to live in Oakland through a priest at St. Benedict’s (because of Father Keefe, she would always have a soft spot for the Catholic Church). And she wrangled a job at Foster’s Cafeteria in the Fillmore District, although she would soon need more money and would end up doing physical labor down on the docks.
The next year, Stone was recruited by the San Francisco Sea Lions, a black barnstorming team that traveled throughout the country. (Note: The San Francisco Seals, part of the Pacific Coast League, did not include any black players.) She played second base and hit leadoff. Virtually no records were kept of those games, so no stats are available for me to quote. We do know that at some point Toni discovered that she was being paid less than her teammates, so she joined the New Orleans Creoles when they presented a better offer – which would indicate that her play was impressive. The Creoles went 44-8.
Better records are available for 1950, and by the middle of the season Toni was batting close to .300 for the Creoles. Meanwhile, she continued to fib about her age. She was a 29-year-old posing as a teenager. But she still had guts like no one had seen before. During one game in Iowa, a double-play throw from her third baseman ripped its way through her weakly made glove and knocked her out cold. Her teammates stood around pouring water on her (I’m not sure how that “treatment” was supposed to help), and when she regained consciousness she immediately stood straight up and screamed “Let’s go!” It stunned the crowd.
It was after the 1950 season, though, that Toni did a more audacious thing. She went and got married to the 67-year-old Aurelious Alberga.
No one really knew why she did it. In the first place, she had never had a boyfriend, had seemingly no interest in sex, walked around in men’s clothes, and, frankly, had been considered by many to be a lesbian. Yet her marriage to Alberga, in whatever form it took (they had separate bedrooms from the start), would last until his death.
Alberga was a well-known black social and political leader, and he provided stability and financial resources to the couple. But for a while, at least, he resisted the idea of her playing baseball, so she sat out for about a year and concentrated on home repairs and domestic chores.
Meanwhile, she was dying to get back to the diamond. During her hiatus she wrote to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – the one featured in the film A League of Their Own – but it was not only “all-American” but also all-white, and she never received a reply.
By 1953, some of the Negro League players had joined Major League Baseball (MLB), which had integrated six years earlier, and few Negro League teams remained solvent. But half a dozen were still in existence, including the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns, who had won the 1951 league championship. The Clowns’ young shortstop, Henry Aaron, had left for the Boston Braves in the middle of 1952, and they needed infielders. The players were well aware of Stone’s play with the barnstorming Creoles, when her powerful arm, her defensive abilities, and her speed (she’d been able to run the 100 in 11 seconds) had impressed them. So she was offered a spot in the Clowns lineup for the 1953 season and joined them for spring training that year. The owner did try to convince her to wear short skirts on the field, but she threatened to quit and he relented. I mean, seriously, who can effectively slide in a skirt??
At this point, don’t forget, everyone assumed that Toni was 21 years old, and they also assumed that she could move like a dancer and run like the wind. But she was a full decade older than that and edging past her prime.
After only two days of practice (the extent of “spring training,” in those days, for the Negro League) and a month of preseason games, Toni Stone officially played her first game as starting second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns on May 15, 1953. She was 31 years old. As she took the field against the Kansas City Monarchs in Beaumont, Texas, she earned her place in history.
She was the first woman to ever play professional big-league baseball.
Just a few words, at this point, about the Negro Leagues. They were not minor leagues; they were not repositories for lesser talents. They were the beginning of organized professional baseball for black (and Hispanic, by the way) athletes who were not yet allowed into Major League Baseball. That would not happen until 1947, when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Willie Mays were some of the former Negro League players to follow Robinson into the majors and ultimately into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Negro Leagues lasted for 40 years, but they started to wane significantly once MLB began attracting their best players. The owners typically weren’t compensated for the departure of their superstars, and many of the teams went bankrupt. By 1960 they were defunct. The loss was bittersweet, because the Negro Leagues had helped spur economic growth in black communities and helped provide a sense of social cohesion among people of color. Their passing was greatly mourned.
This year we celebrate their 100th anniversary. It was in February 1920 that Andrew “Rube” Foster – owner-manager of the Chicago American Giants – convened a meeting with the owners of seven other independent black baseball teams to form the Negro National League. For true baseball fans and also for historians, it’s a really big deal. In fact, on June 27, 2020, all MLB players, coaches, and umps are (were?) slated to wear a Negro Leagues logo on their jersey. A host of other celebrations have been planned as well. The nature of those commemorations, however, remains to be seen.
A little more than halfway through that ’53 season when Toni Stone made history, her Indianapolis Clowns were in last place, despite Toni’s .364 average – fourth in the league. (Ernie Banks, by the way, was in second place.) Still, the team ranked first in attendance among all the Negro League teams – due almost exclusively to the presence of Stone, most observers agree. By season’s end, though, her batting average had dropped to .243, and almost all of her hits were singles.
It gave her cause for worry, especially because at that point a couple of other women were about to join the team.
Mamie Johnson was living with her grandmother in Ridgeway, South Carolina, when she first started playing ball in corner lots as a little girl. According to Michelle Green’s book A Strong Right Arm, a “pie plate was first, the broken piece of flower pot was second, and the large root about three feet from the lilac bush was third.” Home plate was the “smooth white lid of a five-gallon bucket of King Cane sugar,” the sweetest in the South. The “baseball” was a bunch of tape wrapped around a rock. And Mamie could throw that thing, powerful and smooth. She had a fastball, a change-up, and even a knuckleball, and the neighborhood boys had a tough time connecting with her pitches.
When Mamie’s grandmother died in 1945, it was decided that Mamie would move in with an aunt and uncle in Long Branch, New Jersey. She was about 10 years old, and it was not a popular move with her. Not only did she miss the sweet southern air, but there was no baseball at the school she had to attend. It was just softball, and she hated it and refused to play. The ball was way too big, and the pitching was underhand. Sissified blasphemy! But she had gumption, and one day she passed by a field on which a bunch of kids were playing baseball. All boys, of course. And all white. (Sound like a familiar story?) Although told she couldn’t play, Mamie noted that the team was sponsored by the Long Branch Police Athletic League and she hustled right on down to the police station to ask the officers – repeatedly – about whether local laws prohibited a girl from playing baseball. Eventually she wore everyone down and was allowed onto the team, which ended up winning the division championship two years in a row.
For a couple of years Johnson played for other sandlot teams, as well as for an all-black semi-pro club. Like Toni Stone, she also got wind of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and in her case she actually took a bus with a friend all the way down into Virginia to try out for the team. Once they arrived, though, exhausted but ready to play, they were told that no “colored girls” were allowed.
In 1953, when Johnson was playing for a sandlot team, a man in a pinstripe suit who’d been watching their games for three weeks came up to her after he’d witnessed her strike out a series of batters with a particularly voracious fastball. (By the way, she was about 5’2” and weighed 92 pounds.) His name was Bish Tyson, and he was a former Negro League ballplayer and now an unofficial scout. He told her that the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team, would be coming to town for some pre-season exhibition games and would be looking for new players. He was taking a gamble on her; after all, she had no high-level experience on the playing field and no exposure to skilled coaching.
When she arrived at the field in September for what she thought were widespread tryouts, she discovered that the only person trying out was her! She also noted that the Clowns had another female playing for them – second baseman Toni Stone. Mamie did well in the batter’s box and threw to some great hitters that day, and right there on the spot they signed her. She’d be allowed to play in postseason barnstorming games throughout the fall and then would join the permanent roster the following season. Johnson quickly quit her job selling ice cream and boarded the Clowns’ bus, without getting a lick of input (or approval) from her husband. “It didn’t make any difference because I was going to play anyway,” she said.
By 1954 Johnson was in the regular pitching rotation and took the mound about every six days. Her curveball came to her when, in Kansas City, the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige complimented her throwing arm. He was retired from MLB and back to playing in the Negro Leagues with the Monarchs. He told her to stop squeezing the ball as tightly and showed her his curveball. Allegedly. Years later, at a conference about the Negro Leagues, Mamie corrected the story. “He didn’t teach me how to throw it, he taught me how to perfect it,” she said. “I knew how to throw it.”
One day she faced hard-hitting Hank Baylis, third baseman for the Monarchs. Baylis reportedly stepped out, turned around, and hollered to the fans, “Why, that little girl’s no bigger than a peanut. I ain’t afraid of her!” She reached back, uncorked her fastball, and struck him out. “Call me Peanut,” she yelled back at him. From that point on she was Peanut Johnson.
At the end of 1953 the Clowns were also starting to look at Connie Morgan, who would be a more direct threat to Toni Stone because Morgan, too, played second base. Toni started to see the writing on the wall. Peanut Johnson and Connie Morgan – two 19-year-olds – were both slated to be her teammates on the 1954 Clowns. Toni was in her thirties, and the decision had been made that only one female at a time would be in the lineup. To add insult to injury, owner Syd Pollock offered her $350 a month, which was less than the $400 a month she’d been paid the previous year. So she made the decision to sign with the Kansas City Monarchs, who offered her $400 a month and the possibility of a $200 year-end bonus.
Constance Enola (“Connie”) Morgan, born in 1935 in Philadelphia, had played five seasons with the all-girl North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, with whom she’d logged a .368 batting average. She’d read about Toni Stone and the Indianapolis Clowns in Ebony magazine and penned a letter directly to Syd Pollock, requesting a tryout. He obliged in October 1953, and she signed a two-year, $10,000 contract after impressing the team with her defensive skills at second base. She was right out of high school. She’d never had male teammates, and at that point most of her time on the field was spent behind the dish, at catcher. But she could play any position except pitcher, and she shared the same chutzpah and self-confidence that Stone and Johnson possessed.
We don’t know as much about Morgan as we do about the other women, but we do know that her defense was spectacular. She was only 5’4”, but she was strong, and manager Oscar Charleston – a Hall of Famer, and universally considered to be one of the greatest ballplayers of all time – said “her throws across the diamond rank on par with many major leaguers.”
So, what was life on the road like for Negro League players? The teams played almost every day for eight months, with two (and occasionally three!) games on Sundays. Unlike MLB ballplayers, who usually had days off for travel, Negro League players had no such luxury, often riding on a bus for up to 400 miles between games with no break. Syd Pollock meticulously recorded every conceivable kind of stat, and according to his publicity material, “The Clowns have traveled 2,110,000 miles. Once played in a town with a population of 476 and had 1,372 fans at the game. Largest crowd 41,127 in Detroit. Smallest 35 in Lubbock, TX during a tornado. Have had the same bus driver for 17 years, worn out three buses and 19 sets of tires.”
By the way, for bathroom breaks, the bus would stop so men who had to pee could just line up on the side of the road and do their thing. The women, of course, had to walk off into the woods or a culvert, often in the middle of the night.
While traveling in the South, the players had to drink only from certain water fountains and shop only in certain stores. Many of the gas stations were “Whites Only.” Restaurants below the Mason-Dixon line often provided no service to black customers, and much of the time those places were the only food establishments in the area. Once in a while the players would be allowed to go to a back window to pick up cold food. When white people were traveling with the team, sometimes they would pick up a load of food at “white” cafes and bring it back. But they had to be careful; servers had been known to spit into glasses of Coke being served to black people.
As for hotels, many refused rooms to black people, and it was often a scramble if schedules got changed. The Negro Travelers’ Green Book helped out when the team was traveling in the South. But for Toni, there was an added burden. It started when she was turned away at some of the hotels – the few who would serve African-Americans – because they assumed she was a hooker for the players. When the hotel owners pointed her in the direction of the nearest brothel, she found that the kindness of the ladies there was better than some of the everyday treatment she received from the outside world. The women not only provided her with a place to sleep but also fed her, laundered her uniform, gave her extra money, lent her a car, and often even attended her games. It was the prostitutes who always helped her out in life, she would say years after she’d left professional baseball.
One night after a game in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Toni’s rattletrap team bus caught on fire for no apparent reason. Almost all of the players’ belongings and equipment were lost, although Toni had managed to grab her glove before bailing out of the bus. No one, of course, immediately stopped to lend a hand. When a sheriff finally came by, he called his dispatcher. “Nothing serious,” he said. “Just a bus burning up with niggers on it.” Help didn’t arrive for two more hours.
The players knew they had to be infinitely careful about their behavior, especially in southern towns. The smallest of infractions –and sometimes no infraction at all – could get them jailed or killed. “Reckless eyeballing” was one of the ridiculous charges potentially facing a black man. Any white woman could accuse any black man of looking at her too long, and he could be put away. Coaches would tell rookies to “keep their heads down and their mouths shut.”
At ballparks in the South, black major leaguers usually were not allowed in clubhouses and were required to change clothes on the bus. Even more ridiculous – if that’s possible – black fans often had to completely leave the stadium to use a toilet!
Unlike today’s ballplayers, who sit out a game if they have a hangnail, the Negro League players had no physicians available and simply had to play through almost every conceivable injury or health condition outside of a coma. Players who got spiked, for example, would make paste from coal-stove soot, rub it on the (often very deep) wound, and lay a spider web on top of everything to protect the wound because there were no bandages available!
Toni Stone, in particular, was no stranger to being spiked, or to being hit by pitches. Many of the men in the league – including some on her own team – resented playing with or against a woman so much that they either ostracized her or blatantly tried to hurt her. Some teammates even threw to her directly in a baserunner’s path to make it easier for the opposing players to gash her with their metal cleats. She ended up with a lot of scars to prove it, although later she would shrug them off as being battle wounds.
Meanwhile, sportswriters were beginning to be more callous about the women in the league, considering them to be novelties and concerned that they were somehow emasculating the men and the sport. “It’s thrilling to have a woman in one’s arms, and a man has a right to promise the world to his beloved – just so long as that world doesn’t include the right to play baseball with men. . . . This could get to be a woman’s world with men just living in it!” screamed one such insecure writer.
After 1953, the league was on its last breaths.
Connie Morgan played only one full season with the Indianapolis Clowns. She never quite found her footing offensively, hitting only .178 with seven singles, a double, one stolen base, and one RBI in 45 at-bats.
Peanut Johnson hung on for a bit. She played for parts of three seasons with the Clowns and ended up with a dazzling win/loss pitching record of 33-8 and a batting average reported to be between .262 and .284.
The 1954 Monarchs season was not a good one for Toni, who was now 32 years old and 12 pounds over her typical playing weight. She was trying too hard, and her batting average never crossed what is now derogatorily called the Mendoza line (.200). As a result, her temper was closer to the surface. During one game she was called out by the ump on a pitch she thought was a ball, and the catcher yelled “pussy high” after the ball crossed the plate. Enraged, she leaped on the catcher’s back. She would later say that she didn’t know what made her the maddest: the call, the catcher’s vulgar and sexist remark, or the fact that manager Buck O’Neill loved retelling the story.
The Monarchs would come in last place.
Toni Stone retired at the end of the season. The owner gave her $400 for the month but refused to hand over her $200 year-end bonus. It wasn’t the money that mattered, though. “Not playing baseball hurt so damn bad,” she lamented, “I almost had a heart attack.”
After these three women left the game, no woman would ever play professional baseball again.
Toni had a hard time adjusting to life after Negro League baseball. She settled back into her home on Isabella Street in Oakland. Her mom and sister lived nearby, but she felt unmoored. She spent time alone with her mementos, reliving the glory days, and occasionally she took to drinking a bit too much. She was always suspicious of visitors claiming to be sympathetic reporters, who on more than one occasion stole her mementos. But she was also suspicious of bona fide reporters, who, she thought, would go to great lengths to make her seem more sophisticated, educated, or feminine than she really was.
In the 1960s, though, she emerged from her funk. She began playing rec baseball and coaching neighborhood teams. She attended Oakland A’s baseball games, sitting by herself behind home plate. In June of 1975, Stone threw out the first pitch at a Giants game. She also did work for local hospitals and served as an occasional home caregiver. When her ancient husband Alberga turned 100 years old in 1984, he asked Toni to give up playing recreational baseball, and finally she agreed. She was in her sixties. After he died at 103, she could often be seen riding her bike around Oakland.
Peanut Johnson earned a nursing degree, moved back to Washington, D.C., remarried twice, and had a 30-year career as a nurse. After retirement she managed the Negro League Baseball Shop in Maryland, which not only sold memorabilia but also taught the public about the historic nature of the Negro Leagues and about living during Jim Crow. It was impossible to get baseball out of her soul, and she remembered only the good times. When asked how she felt about her days in baseball, she would say, “Have you ever won a million dollars? Just to know I was good enough to be there was a tremendous thing for me. If they didn’t let me play, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I’m very proud of that.” She passed away on December 18, 2017, at the age of 82.
Connie Morgan went back to business school, graduated in 1955, and enjoyed a career that included working for the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country. But her subsequent days working for a furrier aggravated her arthritis, and when she switched to driving school buses she developed kidney disease and had to retire at the age of 40. According to Martha Ackmann, Morgan “rarely talked about the Negro League. To many who saw her, she was just the lonely woman who sat for days by the window of her Federal Street row house with only the light of a flickering television set.” In 1995, she was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and the next year – after living with constant dialysis – she succumbed to her kidney problems at the age of 61. For years her grave at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia was unmarked. A travesty. But in 2014 she was finally given a headstone through the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project.
Incredibly, the Baseball Hall of Fame did not even officially recognize the Negro Leagues until August of 1991. Seventy-five former Negro League players were invited to Cooperstown that year, and Toni Stone was one of them. It was the second-happiest day of her life. The happiest, according to a tale she would oft repeat, was the day she got to hit against Satchel Paige during a barnstorming game. Paige loved to toy with batters by outright asking them, ahead of time, which pitch they’d prefer to see. He did the same for Toni. “It doesn’t matter which pitch,” she yelled back. “Just don’t hurt me!” Satchel had a lot of pitches in his bag o’ tricks: the bee ball, the two-hump blooper, and a raft of others. She didn’t even know which one he unleashed on her, but she smacked it over second base. Yes, that was the happiest day of her life.
Toni Stone Alberga died of heart failure in an Alameda nursing home on November 2, 1996. She was 75 years old.
A year later, a baseball field named for her was dedicated at the Dunning Sports Complex in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The year Toni Stone died, Minnesota playwright Roger Niebor wrote a play entitled Tomboy Stone that had a brief run at the Great American History Theater in Saint Paul. “I suppose the number of women who could travel and play like that, discriminated on the basis of race and sex the whole time, would be few,” he said. “And to do it with the energy and intensity of Toni Stone evidenced the power and beauty of the human spirit and made me proud to know her.”
To “power and beauty” I would add “fearlessness.” Those women needed to be physically tough and to have no problem squatting in a dark culvert at night or playing through serious injuries with no medical attention. And they had to be courageous enough to suffer relentless racist and sexist taunts and all the other consequences of breaking barriers more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act was signed.
Finally, I would also add “dignity.” No matter what they faced, these women continued to live their lives with self-respect. And when they retired from the game, and their departures garnered no attention, they showed no traces of bitterness over the ways they were exploited by team owners. Even in later years, when they spoke of their reverence for the game and for their time in the big leagues, they never dwelt on the fear they lived with on the road, the inconveniences, the scorn.
They played with passion, these women. Passion got them through the tough times.
Like a lot of war veterans, Toni Stone “didn’t talk too much about her baseball life,” said her niece, Maria Barlow. “But she was the first woman to do a lot of things. She wouldn’t consider herself a feminist, but she knew that she wanted more in life and she was fighting for it. She stood up to people, like the white owner, and fought for her pay. She stood up for herself. I saw the letters that she wrote. And she did it all by herself. She didn’t have anyone helping her or clearing the path for her. My aunt was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known.”
All three are gone now. But they represented the best of America. And for a brief moment in time, they were our girls of summer.
Note: Much of the information in this piece was taken from the beautifully researched Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann and from A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson by Michelle Y. Green.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
7/24/72 [age 16]:
“I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I have begun reading the Bible. Seriously, and completely. I have only gotten through Genesis. It is interesting reading, though sometimes the ‘Jason had two sons, Esau and Aron, and Aron had . . .’ and it continues for pages is boring. It may take me a year or two to read it, but I want to conquer it, just as I conquered ‘Leaves of Grass’ (of which I finally bought a copy, the cheapest paperback available, 95 cents).”
8/5/72 [age 16]:
“I rode [my bike] down to Confession tonight. Big deal, I missed Mass once. But I won’t miss it again. Hey, Auntie Jackie called yesterday and asked if I could fly down to her house [in southern CA]. I really want to go, and I love to fly, and I’ll be AWAY. But Mom and Dad are against it, and as yet they haven’t produced an answer. If they say no, I’ll croak!”
8/8/72 [age 16]:
“The [Santa Cruz] beach was awful today – it was completely cold and gray and overcast and there were absolutely no waves at all. No surf + no sun = no fun. (A Paula Bocciardi original – perhaps I should have it patented.) I didn’t even go in swimming, although I did wade a bit. Mom and Dad still haven’t given me an answer on the trip down south. They better hurry. If they don’t let me go, I will stay mad the rest of my life!”
8/10/72 [age 16]:
“It’s hard to believe that I got to come down South [to visit my relatives in southern CA] today. At 6:55 we took off from San Jose, and Grammy and Grampy picked me up in Burbank at 7:43. Fantastic, that plane ride! I mean, all by myself and it was so miraculous looking down on the earth. I was not afraid at all. I also love it down here. [My aunt] Jackie is a neat-type parent, and I like her way of life (except her house isn’t very clean). Today I was introduced to a new way of life. We drove down to [my aunt’s friend] Renee’s store. I met Renee – she’s a middle-aged hippie and owns a boutique shop and sells organic health foods. A friend of hers was in there, another free-spirit musician, playing his guitar and singing. The place smelled like a funny spice, which I can still smell, and was so hot I almost passed out. Also, I had one of her homemade organic fruit drinks and it nauseated me.”
8/14/72 [age 16]:
“I pulled one of my traditional ‘Paula Bocciardi the klutz’ tricks today. Dad had given me five dollars for this trip [to southern CA] along with the strange words ‘Don’t spend it’ (don’t ask what that’s supposed to mean) and [my cousins] Carla and Ronnie and I went down to a record store in Hollywood to get Andy Williams’ ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ for Carla. I stuck the bill in my pocket and – ack! – it had a hole in it. I LOST it! What will Dad say?”
8/15/72 [age 16]:
“Oh, wow, today was the best day of all. Grammy took [my aunt and cousins] Jackie, Kathy, Lisa, and me (Carla was too tired) to Magic Mountain in Valencia. I loved it. You pay $5 to get in, but after that ALL THE RIDES ARE FREE, yeah. I liked the log ride because there are two slopes that are straight down. And I also liked the bumper cars, because we met some guys (I swear they are all cute down here) and had a ‘war’ with them. From 8:00 to 8:45 we saw TRINI LOPEZ (free!). And Grammy saw GLEN CAMPBELL stroll by, and I’m sick because I didn’t see him. 1:00 to 11:00 – total time, 10 hours.”
9/9/72 [age 16]:
“Mom and Dad and [my visiting uncle and aunt] Fred and Jackie and [my cousin] Lisa and I went off to the Cannery and the wharf and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. I’ve seen them a million times but I love San Francisco for its hilaric [sic] craziness. The city has a grand, majestic, mysterious beauty but the cars and the people and the streets – they’re all crazy. Two guys came near to blows in the middle of traffic and some girl who thought she was a witch was cursing some guys, and the musicians – it’s so crazy!!”
9/11/72 [age 16]:
“The very worst possible thing has happened. Dad mentioned tonight that we are going to Clear Lake this weekend. O, I did so want to make the most of this very last weekend before I start college! I don’t want to go to that horrid place I hate so dreadfully! Maybe if I play it straight and be calm and cool and good, something’ll happen. Please, God!!”
9/14/72 [age 16]:
“Today was a nothing day except I found out some wonderful news. We are not going to Clear Lake this weekend. I wanted everyone else to go and just let me stay at [our friends] the Rosaleses at night, but instead we are not going at all. Now I feel guilty. I don’t know if I should, since I HAVE put up with it for so often. Maybe it wasn’t wrong to ask – God heard my fervent, fervent prayer and granted it, so perhaps it’s okay. I don’t know. I can’t help but feel guilty, but my joy and relief right now overrules it. Yeah.”
9/15/72 [age 16]:
“The time for college is growing near, and I am no more emotionally prepared for it than I am sensible, and THAT’S not at ALL. My car pool situation is very confusing, which doesn’t cheer me up at all. My best friend and teacher and confidant is going away, and the thought of homework kills me. Only a few days left, and I am so scared. Oh, my aching heart.”
9/16/72 [age 16]:
“I went to see ‘On a Clear Day’ and ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’ with Jeanne, and something a lady in the latter movie kept saying has been bothering me. She was always in a constant state of depression, and told Alan Arkin that he couldn’t be able to think of three kind, loving, decent human beings, and I’m wondering if humanity is all that bad. Who would my three be? [My cousin] Carla, Sister Kathleen Mary, and Abraham (my Bible hero). Linus and Charlie Brown aren’t real, and Christ is God. I don’t know if I could think of anyone else.”
The woman who wrote “America the Beautiful” was not exactly a 19th century wallflower. She was a feminist. She was an activist. She was most likely a lesbian. And she was involved in a “Boston marriage” – a concept certainly new to me when I began to research this piece. Little did she know when she boarded a train in Chicago one summer that it would lead her to set down some of the most stirring words ever written about this country and its ideals.
As the spring semester drew to a close in 1893, a 34-year-old Wellesley professor named Katharine Lee Bates was offered the opportunity to teach a summer class on Chaucer at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. (Wellesley was, and is, a private school for women in Massachusetts.) Bates jumped at the chance. Earlier that year she had dealt with a severe bout of depression, and the travel, she thought, would do her good. A published writer and poet, as well as an experienced international traveler, she nevertheless was unlikely to have seen much of the country west of the Mississippi. So she was eager to get started on the roughly 2,000-mile train trip.
O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears
The first leg of the journey by rail ended in Chicago, where Bates would pick up Katharine Coman, a fellow Wellesley professor of economics and history who would likewise teach a summer class in Colorado Springs. They’d known each other for six years. Coman’s family home was in Chicago, and the two spent a few days there, visiting the World’s Fair and a recently-built monument to women in the arts and sciences. At the World’s Fair, Bates took note of an area called “The White City” that featured buildings illuminated not only by their painted-white exteriors but also by the multitude of streetlights lining the boulevards. It was the beginning of modern city planning.
“Thine alabaster cities gleam,” Bates would later write.
From there, “the two Katharines,” as they were often called, boarded a train on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rail line. It was July 3, 1893.
Bates was an ardent member of a group of progressive Boston female academics and activists who were pioneers of social reform and concerned with immigration, labor union rights, women’s suffrage, and urban poverty. She was the author and editor of more than 40 works of poetry and literary criticism.
Katharine Coman, two years younger than Bates, taught at Wellesley for 35 years and was the first female professor of statistics in the United States. Like Bates, she was interested in social reform, especially through political economics; she would take her students on field trips to tenements, factories, and sweatshops in Boston to teach about applying economic theory to social problems. In 1910, Coman would help unionize striking women in the garment industry during the massive Chicago garment workers’ strike. She was the author of The Industrial History of the United States, among other works.
Together, the Katharines – who were dedicated to helping the poor – had in 1887 founded the College Settlements Association, which assigned female students to help poor European immigrants who had recently come to America. The two women volunteered at the association’s Denison House, which was a Boston settlement house that distributed necessities like milk and coal, offered classes, conducted housing investigations, and served generally as a neighborhood center. Bates and Coman were totally committed to ensuring that immigrants and women could have the basic support they needed to get a foothold in society.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
With the land opening up in front of her as she rode the rails to Colorado, Bates saw vast open spaces for the very first time. The raw, sweeping West was so much grander in scale than the populous East Coast. Out the window of the train, in what was likely Kansas, she could see endless fields replete with “amber waves of grain.” Above it all were the “spacious skies” of the Great Plains. Overwhelmed, she scrawled some notes. It was the Fourth of July.
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain
Bates had a lot of free time that summer, in between her Chaucer classes. She and Coman and other professors took group trips around the area, and on Saturday, July 22, they headed for Pikes Peak, which, at 14,115 feet, is higher than any point in the country to its east. (The area is named for explorer Zebulon Pike, so it baffles me that there is no apostrophe; it somehow got discarded along the way.) The little Cog Peak railroad that had been built two years earlier to convey sightseers up the mountain was broken down that day, so they ended up having to take a horse-drawn wagon halfway there, and then mules the rest of the way. A sign on the wagon read “Pikes Peak or Bust.” At that altitude, by the way, oxygen levels are dangerously low.
The 360-degree panorama from that summit took Bates’ breath away. She was awestruck by the grand appearance of the Rockies, the “purple mountain majesties.”
“I was very tired,” she said. “But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there. . . . [We] gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and sea like sweep of plain. Then and there the opening lines of ‘America the Beautiful’ sprang into being. . . . I wrote the entire song on my return that evening to Colorado Springs.”
Bates was staying at the Antlers Hotel, a rather grand lodge built in 1883 by William Jackson Palmer, who also happened to be the founder of Colorado Springs. The 75-room hotel was named for the collection of elk and deer racks that he installed there. Bates undoubtedly enjoyed her summer residence at the Antlers, especially because it was a fancy place for the time. No two rooms were alike. The guests enjoyed steam heat and hot and cold water. There was a music room, a Turkish bath, a barber shop, and a hydraulic elevator. It was all downright luxurious.
I don’t know whether Bates and Coman stayed together. But it was in her hotel room, when she returned from Pikes Peak that night, that Bates sat down to pen the original words to “America the Beautiful.”
In the late 1800s in New England, female pairings were so plentiful that they came to be called “Boston marriages” or “Wellesley marriages,” in which two women lived together without – gasp! – any financial support from a man. These couples were not necessarily romantic, although my guess is that more of them were than were publicly acknowledged. Typically the women were well educated and had solid careers, often in social justice areas. If nothing else they were intellectual companions, and they provided each other with moral support in the unrelentingly sexist environs of the time. At Wellesley, specifically, female professors were usually forced to resign if they married, so if women wanted to keep their careers they often paired up for financial reasons at the very least. In the late 1800s, according to Lillian Faderman, “of the 53 women faculty at Wellesley, only one woman was conventionally married to a man; most of the others lived with a female companion.”
The Katharines lived together for more than 25 years. When they were apart, they wrote each other letters every day and pressed yellow flowers between the pages.
“America the Beautiful” took a crazily convoluted path. Bates’ poem, titled “Pikes Peak,” was first published as “America” in The Congregationalist newspaper on July 4, 1895. People loved it so much that at least 75 melodies were written for it (even “Auld Lang Syne” was matched to it for a while because the song’s meter fit the lyrics). Finally, in 1910, a publisher added a melody that had been written in 1882 by New Jersey organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. The combination was now retitled “America the Beautiful,” and Bates amended her lyrics shortly thereafter, in 1911, to the version we know today. Sadly, Bates never met Ward. He had died in 1903 and was never aware of his music’s legacy.
Katharine Coman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1912 and died on January 11, 1915, at the age of 57. Bates, who had lovingly tended to her throughout her painful ordeal, was so grief-stricken that she said, “So much of me died with Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.”
Seven years later, Bates published a book of poetry about Coman called Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance.
At least one scholar has disputed the now-accepted notion that Bates and Coman were lovers. I don’t think it really matters. Romantic or not, love is love.
Katharine Bates never left Wellesley. She continued her work there until 1925 and after she passed away in 1929, the flag at Wellesley’s Tower Court was flown at half-staff.
O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness
America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law
O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life
America, America, May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine
Because of its first verse, “America the Beautiful” is often seen as a lovely but innocuous song about the breadth and beauty of this country – the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountains, the fruited plain, all stretching from sea to shining sea. But really, the song is just as much about principles, and about the rich history of people who courageously fought here. It’s about wayfarers who managed to settle a wild, sometimes coarse landscape. It’s about the heroes who loved their country more than themselves. It asks for God to mend our flaws (and heaven knows there have been many). It reminds the citizenry to reign in their newfound freedoms through self-control and the exercise of law, and to ensure that the pursuit and use of the country’s riches remain noble. And in the end, it expresses the hope that, years hence, our shining cities will be undimmed by the tears of the unfortunate.
It was a prayer, it was a caution, it was a patriot’s dream.
I doubt that the dream will be fully realized in my lifetime. But I do believe that both our idealists and our pragmatists continue to try to bring it to pass. Maybe that constant effort is actually what makes Americans who they are.
Happy Fourth, everyone.
The 1976 Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” stands alone. There is no other version, as far as I’m concerned. It’s sung with sincerity, love, longing, and guts. Even if you’ve heard it before, please give it a listen.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain America, America, God shed His grace on thee And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea
O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law
O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life America, America, May God thy gold refine Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine
O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears America, America, God shed His grace on thee And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
4/2/72 [age 16]:
“We all went to [my aunt] Zia’s for Easter dinner today, and when we got back an unusual thing happened. We all smelled something funny [in our house] and we searched for a long time trying to see what was burning. Finally, [my brother] Marc discovered that I’d left my lamp on and my pet plastic monkey from Barrel of Monkees had fallen off the lampshade and had welded itself to the lightbulb in a glob.”
4/7/72 [age 16]:
“I don’t know why, but I got this sudden urge to read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I found out we [my parents] have it. One poem, “Tears,” is really good. I like good old Walt baby.”
Author bio: Buster Posey Scearce was born in Dixon, CA, on New Year’s Eve 2011. Although he has no formal education, Mr. Scearce is known for his street smarts. He enjoys dining on fine charcuterie and taking long walks on the beach. This is his first published piece.
Right off the bat, I need to clue you in on something. Paula Bocciardi is not the “Morning Morning Rail” author today. She says she is just too exhausted from being on the road for the last month. I, on the other hand, am not a whit tired, and while I was begging her to play with me this morning she snapped, “If you’re so energetic, why don’t you write the damned thing?” And so I will.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself. As my bio notes, I was born on New Year’s Eve 2011 in Dixon, California — a hot part of the Central Valley not far from Sacramento. I don’t remember much about my immediate relatives but I do know that I come from a very proud lineage. We, you see, are the Lhasa Apsos.
Lhasas are fairly recent immigrants to this country, having first arrived here in the 1930s. For centuries before that, we made our home in the mountains of Tibet, where we zealously guarded the Buddhist monasteries from approaching marauders. We are not warriors and we do not fight; we are much too refined for that. But our job is to protect against potential invaders by basically barking our lungs out. So, like my fathers before me, I am a sentinel through and through. At home, 24/7, I warn my moms about developing threats like wind-blown trash bags or sketchy people in hoodies. My bark is so shrill it could trigger a coronary.
The history books say that Lhasas are lionhearted, which also apparently translates to “maddeningly stubborn.” We’re quite smart, but we refuse to do anything that makes no sense to us. For example, when I was a few months old, my moms decided that I should get used to wearing a collar in the house. This, to me, was folly. There is no reason on earth for me to be inconvenienced in my own home. So, after they put that thing on me, I sat down and refused to move. For six hours. I do not exaggerate. I was a bouncy puppy, and yet I did not move for six hours. Eventually, they caved.
I am also reserved. Paula says that she gets jealous when she meets dogs in the outside world who constantly wag their tails and give kisses to passers-by. Whatever. That’s just gauche. I am wary of strangers and children and I have absolutely no reason to be friendly to them. I am above all that. I may be related to the Shih-Tzu, but I admit that I’m not nearly as nice. I’m like a Shih-Tzu with attitude.
But I’m fiercely loyal, playful, and funny (more than once it’s been suggested that I try stand-up comedy). Unlike Paula’s first dog Peanuts – a beagle who apparently relentlessly ate everything from Paula’s dental retainer to her father’s cowboy hat – I’m a self-feeder; I merely graze in my bowl whenever I feel like it because I resent authoritarian schedules and want to eat on my own time, thank you very much. I can go 14 hours without “doing my business,” I sleep all morning long without waking my moms, and I don’t shed, which means that I never cause Julie any wheezing fits.
Best of all, however, I am the World’s Greatest Traveler.
That’s why I’m eminently qualified to write this blog post. Some of you readers may be weighing the possibility of taking a long road trip with your dogs. Worry no longer. I, the World’s Greatest Traveler, am about to generously share my wisdom, tips, and experience with you so that you will be fully prepared for the extravaganza. If you don’t care one iota about this subject, please stop reading now and wait for Paula’s next blog, which, with July 4 coming up, will undoubtedly be about something patriotic. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaawn.
One note: I prefer to use the term ’cross-country trip for our escapades, even though technically we do not drive all the way from coast to coast. (Please don’t blast me on Twitter for this slight irregularity of language!) Our trips are generally from San Francisco to Louisville, Kentucky — a distance of about 2,500 miles.
Before we leave home, my moms spend a lot of time discussing which way we’re going — the northern route along Interstate 80 (through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska) or the southern route along I-40, much of which parallels Route 66 (through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma). Although Louisville is a bit north of San Francisco (bet you didn’t know that!), both routes involve about the same number of driving hours (around 36), and both end up taking us into Missouri, through St. Louis, and on to Louisville.
Gorgeous high-mountain scenery
Higher speed limits
Really nice rest stops with grass where I can do my business
Between Reno and Salt Lake City, there just ain’t much going on
Tortuous interstate driving through the Rockies, often with gale-force winds
Hundreds of miles between towns
Follows Route 66 (this is huuuuuge for Paula)
More In-N-Out Burgers (a big plus for me – more on this later)
Oklahoma – so clean and friendly!
Many closed and/or undesirable rest areas through Arizona and New Mexico, with “pet areas” that are just patches of thorns and brittle weeds
Only one rest stop in Texas
More sketchy hotels
Julie likes the northern route because of the rest areas and because she feels safer. Paula likes the southern route because of Route 66 and because she feels safer. These gals just do not make sense.
The ideal situation is that we follow one route coming and the other going. But the reality is that we take most of our trips in the fall and winter when the weather across the mountains is typically dicey. So Paula usually wins.
Paula, of course, has compiled packing checklists for every kind of trip and every city, and apparently there is a “Buster” checklist as well. Although they pretend to adhere to these lists religiously, the bottom line is that my moms are not exactly fashion mavens and they really don’t need to bring much.
Paula has a dozen Eddie Bauer Infinity shirts, in different colors, that never wear out; she wears them every day she travels. They absolutely never wrinkle even if you wad them up in a tiny ball, which is how she packs.
Julie is widely known for wearing shorts and a t-shirt without fail, no matter what the weather, even in a blizzard.
I, however, am high-maintenance and require a multitude of items.
First and foremost I have a little red travel bag that carries my toys, collapsible food and water bowls, ear infection medicine (just in case), hypoallergenic shampoo, comb and scissors, toothbrush, my medical and licensing paperwork (you should always carry those with you on a trip!), a bell to hang on people’s doors so I can ring it when I need to go out (yeah, you read that right!), food and treats, poop bags, and a belly band with Maxi Pads.
That last item is a bit embarrassing for me to talk about. You see, when I was young I used to occasionally pee in people’s houses (but only if they had let their own dogs pee there, which made me think the whole house was a bathroom). It made sense to me but my moms were always mortified, so their dogwalker friend Al suggested that they put a belly band around me with a lady’s Maxi Pad in it to cover my you-know-what and soak up any leaks. They’ve done this for years even though I have outgrown that habit, and the whole scenario has been an insult to my masculinity and a source of many triggers for me.
Behind the front seat my moms keep my leash and harness, bottled H2O, and a little water dish. Sometimes I am just too bull-headed to drink outside the car so Julie actually fills the bowl and holds it while I lap from the convenience of my prone position in the back seat. I’ve heard some people comment that that’s the height of entitlement but I consider it to be a luxury well deserved.
Oh, and Julie bought me a portable sunshade that suction-cups onto the side window. Nice!
We have a mid-sized SUV, and I ride in the back, on a fuzzy bolstered car seat for my ultimate comfort and so I don’t slip around. My dog bed – covered with my 49ers blanket (to show off my San Francisco cred) – is back there, and on the road I spend most of my time in that bed.
Now, before you all start a Twitter campaign against my moms: yes, it’s true that they do not restrain me in the back seat. But here’s the thing: I don’t accept any form of restraint. I simply will not stand for it. Many seats and leashes and crash-safe harnesses have been tried on me, and I’ve refused them all. They’re just a royal pain in the culo. (Remember my aforementioned six-hour sit-in when my moms tried to force me to wear a collar in our house.) But because I am the World’s Greatest Traveler, I do not stick my head out the window. I do not pace. I do not pant. I do not cry. I do not bark. I do not stand up on the seat. That behavior is for boors. I just lie quietly in my bed, for hours and hours on end. So my moms figure that since I am always lying down, the chances of my being thrown through the windshield are negligible. And we do have side air bags. They did, though, buy a mesh thing to stretch across the gap between the front seats. Otherwise I will spring onto their laps mid-ride whenever I am scared out of my wits by road grooves, passing motorcycles, or that true horror of horrors, moving windshield wipers.
Because of Paula’s bad sacroiliac and poor packing abilities, Julie is in charge of loading and unloading the car. She strategically fits all of our suitcases into the back of the car, along with an ice chest, pillows, case of water, and finally her amazing collapsible red wagon. She bought this thing because standard hotel luggage carts are too wobbly and hard to steer, not to mention that they’re not always available. Paula originally had many a laugh about this wagon but now has come to eat her words and admire its utility.
When we arrive at the hotel each night, we load all this stuff – plus my dog bed – into the room. It’s a lot. At least, for expediency, my moms put all their road clothes and sundries into one little yellow duffle bag so that they never have to root through multiple suitcases. Very smart. Oh, and here’s another tip: be sure to put your lotion and other sundries bottles in plastic bags because, Honey, otherwise they will explode all over your clothes when you get up at altitudes above sea level!
You know, every time we’re about to leave on a ’cross-country road trip, I hear one or both of my moms utter these exact words: “This time for sure, we cannot have fast food for lunch every day we’re on the road. We need to bring healthy food from home, eat low-cal Subway sandwiches, or stop at cute little places along the way. So this time will be different, right?” Then we proceed to have fast-food burgers every single day for lunch.
Our favorite joint is In-N-Out Burger. Unfortunately, along our routes they’re found only in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. Because we love them so, when we’re in those states we try to schedule our daily drives around their locations, especially because I am an ardent fan of their “puppy patty.” It’s just the right size, unseasoned, with a fairly low level of grease, unlike that gigantic greasy patty I recently ate at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company that made me retch. That’s the last time we’ll do THAT!
If In-N-Outs aren’t available, we’ll grudgingly get a Subway sandwich or go to McDonald’s, which is the Switzerland of fast food for my moms because they simply cannot agree on any other chain. It’s so odd, though: they go in to McDonald’s really excited and after they’re done eating they’re consumed with guilt and shame. Honestly, I don’t understand people at all.
Meanwhile, we do eat well at dinner. In our hotel room, my moms always put out a delicious spread of what they call their “Tuscan meal”: rosemary crackers, cheese, almonds, prosciutto, salame, wine, and maybe a bit of chocolate. Unfortunately, they force me to eat dog food.
Although I consider it to be blatant discrimination, many hotels do not allow pets to grace their premises. So it’s good to have some kind of idea which hotel chains allow dogs. Paula – OF COURSE – keeps a database of all our road trip lodging. The database not only includes comprehensive notes on every aspect of the hotels, but it also assigns a star rating to each establishment.
La Quinta Inns & Suites, until earlier this year, allowed pets to stay for free. But they were acquired by Wyndham a few months ago, and now each location is allowed to determine what, if anything, to charge. They’re still a great value and are our go-to hotels.
Best Western pet policies vary, but fees usually don’t top $20.
Drury Inn & Suites, recommended by our friend Val, charge $35 per pet and have weight restrictions. (For pets, not people!) Paula loves them because they offer free cookies, free popcorn, and a free “dinner” (of questionable quality, but heck, it’s free and it’s food) including two glasses apiece of wine, beer, or liquor!
We really love Candlewood Suites and Staybridge Suites, with pet fees that range from $25 up. Three days a week, they even offer free dinner and drinks (except in Wyoming, where for some reason they legally can’t serve booze).
At many hotel chains, like Holiday Inn Express or Embassy Suites, pet fees (if they allow pets at all) vary by location. In Tulsa, the Embassy Suites charges $50. Paula says that’s the most she’d consider paying for me because I don’t shed, I don’t do my business in the room, and I cause zero damage. Again, I am the World’s Greatest Traveler.
Some places, like Homewood Suites and most or all of the Marriott hotels, charge fees like $150 per pet, and that’s just plain old highway robbery, as my hero Rin Tin Tin used to say.
Please note that most of these hotel chains include “Suites” in their names. This, my friends, is the number-one key to a good hotel experience with your dog. As soon as we discovered that La Quinta suites are only $10 more per night than the regular rooms, we vowed never to get a regular room again. My moms like having a table – or at least a coffee table – where they eat their dinner. More importantly, I really appreciate having a lot of space in which to run around, and the closed door between the bedroom and living room is a great buffer from any hallway noise, leaving me less of an incentive to bark at night and guaranteeing my moms some peaceful sleep.
(But one bit of warning: make sure it’s a “one-bedroom suite” or “two-room suite.” A “king suite” or “king studio suite” usually just means there’s a low partition between the bedroom and couch areas. What good is that??)
Each night, my moms typically reserve a room for the next night. They usually book the room online and then call the hotel to make sure everything went through. They also make this call because – and this is a word of warning – some sites and apps allow you to reserve a room at a pet-friendly place, but when you get there you find out that the specific room or suite you booked is not pet-friendly. So insulting.
Oh, and by the way, some hotels on our latest trip, even though they had pet fees, didn’t charge for me. Although my moms puzzled over the lack of these charges on their credit card bill, I’m convinced it was because I’m so charming.
On the road:
When our vacation time was limited because Julie was still working, and before Paula’s back got so bad, we would drive about 9 hours a day and eat a drive-through lunch in the car, which meant we were on the road for probably about 11 hours a day when you add in all the gasoline and rest stops. Ugh. Now it’s more leisurely, and we make sure to drive no more than 6 hours a day, changing drivers every hour or so.
And remember that driving east we jump ahead an hour as we cross into each time zone, so on those days we have less time to drive if we want to pull into the hotel by dinnertime. Driving westbound allows us more flexibility.
If it’s a weekday, we have to base our departure and arrival times on rush hour, at least in the major cities. So in the mornings we often wait out the rush and leave at 9:30 a.m. Julie watches the news while Paula, who heaves and gags whenever she watches cable news, sips a cup of decaf and reads a book. Then Paula takes me on a long walk around the hotel, allowing me the daily satisfaction of peeing on every vertical object in sight. Julie, meanwhile, packs up the SUV.
I’m always really eager to get in the car every morning. I love the drive. I love the gas stations. I love the rest stops. Periodically, we get off the highway to track down some bit of Americana or another that Paula has read about somewhere. If we’re going the southern route, most of the attractions are on Route 66. In the north, Paula uses her “Roadside America” app, which she claims is the most useful app she owns. (I guess she’s not counting her beloved “Rest Stops Plus” app.) Anyway, my moms typically pose me in these historic places, and because I am the World’s Greatest Traveler, I resignedly humor them.
And when we pull into each new hotel every night, I am nearly overcome with anticipation. I love trotting through the lobby. I love getting on the elevator. I love sniffing under the door of each room down the hallway, trying to figure out which one is ours. Then, when we throw open the door to our own luxurious suite, I love rubbing my face on every square inch of the place, to establish my dominance. O, the rapture!
I love the open road, and I love smelling every new town all across America. I’ve stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. Seen cowboys in New Mexico. Visited the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Admired the Mickey Mantle statue in Commerce, Oklahoma. Sat under the world’s biggest rocking chair in Cuba, Missouri. Stumbled upon a neighborhood tribute to Negro League ballplayer Buck O’Neil in Kansas City. Eaten barbecue in Nashville. Tromped through a pumpkin patch in Indiana. Paid veterans my respects on the Purple Heart Trail. Posed next to the Lincoln Highway monument in Wyoming. Walked along the shore of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Sat on an antique trail wagon in Elko, Nevada.
I’ve ridden past the colorful deserts, ranging farmland, rugged mountains, sweet-smelling forests, and meandering trains covering this great land.
I’ve been everywhere, man.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
3/12/72 [age 16]:
“I’m ashamed now that I had to be such a quitter [at skiing] yesterday. And I had to be so clumsy when Colleen and Tony were doing so well. Anyway, this morning [at Bear Valley] we went to the recreation area and had snowball fights. And oh, yes, we rode on a snowmobile out to the lodge and watched Clint (what a doll!) Eastwood and Ron (what a bod!) Ely play tennis.”
2/11/72 [age 16]:
“My First Date by PRB. Okay, so now I’ll tell you about Thursday night. It was our last night game [of my high school football team]. SOB, SOB. Anyway, Jerry asked if he could take me and for some inexplicable reason they [my parents] actually let me. . . . Afterwards, we went to Shakeys in Milpitas. A whole mess of PH [my high school] kids go there after night games, I found out. You should have seen their reactions [because I was the principal’s daughter]. The whole place just stared at us. I heard some comments. And Jerry said everybody always says “hi” to him but only one person did. They were the swingers – cheerleaders, songgirls, hard guys. They think I’m a goody-goody. ‘You have to prove you’re not,’ Jerry said. Well, I am A-1 confused. I am torn, because what do I do? Act contrary to my nature so I can be ‘accepted’? Or stay goody-goody and never fit and still go without dates? Sure, Jerry’s available, but I don’t like him that much, and the guys I do like, well, they don’t have the nerve to ask out PRINCIPAL’S DAUGHTER.”
2/14/72 [age 16]:
“Now that my first date is over with and the novelty is worn off, I’ve been kind of depressed. I wish Pat Sears would come back. He’s the only guy I’ve ever really liked. Maybe this summer. Jerry asked me to eat [lunch] with him again today and I said okay but I’m not going to tomorrow because he is bound to get the wrong impression. He is all right but I wouldn’t want him for steady company. Gosh, I’m sleepy. Zzzzzzz….”
2/18/72 [age 16]:
“Well, I had my second date tonight. All we did was go to the [basketball] game and then to Straw Hat Pizza again. Somehow I didn’t think it would ever be like this. Jerry is okay, but is really a baby. If only Pat Sears would come back. There is a rule in adolescent love: those you like like you not, and those who like you you like not.”
2/22/72 [age 16]:
“Today I have finally advanced from the rank of super goodie-goodie to beginning bad guy. I actually cut class. Jeanne and I went to the [school] library and sat down and looked at ‘The Chronicle.’ ”
2/23/72 [age 16]:
“I keep thinking about our basketball game. I only got to play the second half. But I didn’t make ANY points. I missed two shots and two free throws. In practice I am really super-fantastic, but in a game I get really nervous. My hands get all sweaty and everything. I just can’t hit. And I’m always so worried about what people are going to think of me. I get really embarrassed when I make a mistake. We lost 57-7. What a cream!”
2/25/72 [age 16]:
“I can’t explain why, but a big wave of depression has come over me lately. This time it is so deep it is threatening to drown me completely. I can’t get out. I’ve been actually considering running away. I am really surprised at myself. I don’t know where to yet, and it can’t be right away because of school, but I don’t want to go to college! I have my doubts. I don’t really need it. I’ll be so young . Maybe I should wait a year. I just am too young. I realize now how sheltered I have been. I really don’t know what the world is like, and I’ve had no experience with it. I was talking to Mr. Barisich [my dad’s associate principal and a family friend] and he said he didn’t think people should go to college until age 24. He said if he were me he’d be “scared as hell,” not because of the academic competition but because of social adjustment. He told me I have a lot of thinking to do. I LOVE Mr. Barisich. This old college fear is weighing on me so heavily. I need SOME ANSWERS!!! And wow, I’m already 16 and never been kissed.”
3/9/72 [age 16]:
“Dad [also the principal of my high school] found out about Senior Cut Day, which was supposed to be tomorrow, and really threatened us over the P.A. today, saying they would make house calls and maybe take away the Senior Ball and Senior Picnic, etc. But what got me is Marc and Colleen both told me that everybody thinks I was the one who finked!”
For they looked in the future and what did they see They saw an iron road runnin’ from the sea to the sea Bringin’ the goods to a young growin’ land All up through the seaports and into their hands
– Gordon Lightfoot
A remarkable American event occurred nearly 150 years ago on April 28, 1869 – something that was considered to be an unimaginable feat at the time.
On that day, during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the world, a group of men laid down 10 miles and 56 feet of rail in the high ground of Utah in less than 12 hours.
We may not be able to appreciate it fully today, when automation and technology have reduced most tasks to the push of a button. But in those days it was a feat of human perseverance, brute strength, endurance, planning, ingenuity, guts, cooperation, and commitment. It was a record that would never be broken.
Construction of an expansive rail system spanning the continent was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s most pressing goals. By the 1860s railroads were up and running in the east, but they came to an end near Omaha, Nebraska. From that point, it would take four months for anyone to make the trip west to California by stagecoach or wagon train.
The overall plan was that the Union Pacific Railroad would construct tracks heading east out of Omaha (well, technically, Council Bluffs, Iowa). Its counterpart would build a railroad from the west that would meet the Union Pacific in northern Utah.
The logistics of building the western segment over the Sierra Nevada mountains were considered to be prohibitive, however, both physically and financially. General William Tecumseh Sherman, in fact, had visited northern California and declared that laying down tracks over the Sierras would require the work of none other than “giants.”
But the collective hubris of California’s “Big Four” rail tycoons – Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Potter Huntington, and Charles Crocker – led them to pool their amassed fortunes and take on an enormous gamble: financing a railroad that would face the challenge of traversing some of the most challenging geography in the country as it headed towards its terminus at Promontory Point, Utah Territory. And so the Central Pacific Railroad was born.
Work on the Transcontinental Railroad by the two powerful railway companies went on for six years, and the Central Pacific had a much tougher time of it. Crossing the Sierras was backbreaking, and the weather and topography proved to be formidable adversaries. The snow was deep, the gorges steep, and the mountain rock nearly impenetrable. Imagine tunneling through the Sierras by hand. To create each tunnel, two men would work an entire day to pound holes 5 feet into the rock using only hammers and chisels. Then other workers were hung from the rock faces and suspended in baskets while they stuck black dynamite into the holes, lit the fuses, and were frantically yanked to safety before the explosives erupted. More than a dozen tunnels were blasted through the mountains. And of course grades needed to be carved and bridges constructed.
The Big Four neared bankruptcy. But the work continued, and eventually the exhausted Central Pacific crew broke through and descended into the Nevada desert.
At this point, I’d like to note that both of the companies involved in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad hired immigrants for the hard labor. About 8,000 of the railroad workers were employed by the Union Pacific and were primarily of Irish, German, and Italian descent. The majority of the laborers (13,000), however, were Chinese immigrants working for the Central Pacific. These guys were, reportedly, extremely hardy and committed workers. They built Buddhist shrines to tend to their spiritual well-being. For their physical health, they wisely arranged for deliveries of rice, dried vegetables, dried oysters and abalone, pork, and poultry, so their food was healthier than the meat-and-potato staples of the other workers. And because they drank boiled tea rather than untreated water, they tended not to fall prey to the dysentery and other infectious diseases that roared through the camps. Of course, they were paid far, far less than the white workers. And to make matters worse, although meals were included in the white workers’ salaries, the Chinese men had the cost of their food deducted from their wages.
Still, they persisted.
As the Central Pacific guys were moving across the Nevada flatlands, the workers of the Union Pacific were slapping down track at breakneck speed as they headed west out of Omaha towards the Great Salt Lake. And at this point the effort became a race, of sorts – a rivalry to determine which group of workers could lay the longest amount of track in the fastest amount of time. That is when Charles Crocker of the Central Pacific Railroad made the claim that everyone thought was foolish: that his men could put down 10 miles of track in a single day.
At 7 a.m. on April 28, the sprint began. The plan, as executed, involved bringing in 16-car trains loaded with rails, bolts, spikes, and other materials needed for two miles of track. All 16 cars were then miraculously unloaded in eight minutes, “cleared with a noise like the bombardment of an army,” according to Erle Heath, associate editor of the Southern Pacific Bulletin. The emptied train would be hauled immediately out of the way and a new loaded train pulled into the appropriate position.
Enter those little iron handcars we’ve all seen in Buster Keaton movies. A keg of bolts, a keg of nails, a bundle of fish plates, and 16 iron rails would be loaded onto a handcar, each of which was manned by six Chinese laborers and their white boss. On flatlands and uphill grades, the handcars were pulled by two horses in tandem. On the downhills, they went sailing along at full tilt, with one man serving as brakeman, the horses galloping alongside until they reached level ground. Keep in mind that while all of this was happening, the empty handcars returning from their position were on the same track. So as the fully loaded cars came whizzing toward them, the guys on the empty handcar had to leap off, hoist the car off the rails, and then put it back on again after the full car had zoomed by without slackening its speed.
Then came the Irish rail handlers – an elite crew of only eight men who actually laid down all the track. And on the tough grades and curves, the rails had to be bent through the sheer force of heavy hammers. Each rail was 30 feet long and weighed – get this – more than half a ton. By the end of the day, each of these guys had lifted 125 tons of iron.
After the rail handlers came the spikers, the bolters, the guys who “surfaced” the tracks by shoveling ballast under them, and finally the tampers – at least 400 of them – with shovels and tamping bars. Foremen on horseback raced back and forth along the tracks.
“It could only be compared to the advance of an army,” said Heath.
But it all went down smoothly, at the rate of about a mile of track laid down every hour. All in all, in that one day the workers placed 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 55,000 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and other material for a total of 4,462,000 pounds. Ten miles and 56 feet of rail in one workday.
It brought the Central Pacific railhead within four miles of the eventual connection, a month later, with the Union Pacific railroad at Promontory Summit.
On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad opened up for through traffic after Leland Stanford, using a silver hammer, drove in the historic Golden Spike connecting the two railroads at Promontory Summit. (Side note: the spike was actually gold-plated, because real gold is too soft.) Both the hammer and the spike were connected by wire to the telegraph line, which would enable the hammer strokes to be heard as clicks at telegraph stations throughout the land. The entire country was listening in. But there were technical difficulties, as the story goes, so the clicks were actually “sent” by the telegraph operator. Uh, oh. FAKE NEWS!!
In the end, about 1,900 miles of rail were laid for the Transcontinental Railroad, with tracks reaching as high as 8,242 feet (at Sherman Pass, Wyoming). Estimates are that fully a quarter of the American labor force worked, in some capacity, to build that railroad.
And it would now take only a week for goods and people to travel from coast to coast.
As with all “progress,” the emergence of the national rail system was not without its drawbacks. It permanently disrupted the way of life of many Native Americans, for one thing. And the railroad barons, driven by greed, exploited their workers.
But intercontinental train travel allowed the restless and growing American populace to find their place in whatever part of the American landscape captured their hearts. It provided a way for poor Southern blacks to migrate northward and westward. It offered employment to thousands. It allowed farmers to transport their goods anywhere quickly. It was the face of the Industrial Revolution.
Labor Day was not yet a holiday when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. But we celebrate it today to honor the labor movements of the late 19th century that were borne out of the suffering of workers who toiled under truly harrowing conditions, with 12-hour workdays, unsafe labor conditions, and paltry wages. Some of those workers were children as young as 5 years old.
Let us be reminded, on this first Monday in September, of the sweat of our ancestors who made possible for us the comforts with which we are living today. Let us be grateful for the miners, the lamplighters, and the stevedores. And let’s think about those railroad workers grinding their way, under the most difficult of conditions, to give us the gift of mobility and freedom.
This week I’ll be boarding the California Zephyr, as I do every couple of years, and traveling across the country by train. To this day, the Zephyr – which goes from Emeryville to Chicago – runs on a part of the original Transcontinental Railroad, from Sacramento to Winnemucca, Nevada.
When I get to the eastern shore, four days later, I’ll be spending time with my Maryland friends and playing music with two of them in a Baltimore coffeehouse.
The name of our band?
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
“Boy, hardly any days left of school. This year went by so fast it’s hard to believe. And thinking we only have one year left at this great school just tears me apart. Skipping [a grade] has taken away one year of my youth. I have been thinking about waiting a year before college. Heck, I’ll only be 16 and just a baby. I’ll be sucking my thumb while everyone else is walking already.”
“I sure love music. I used to listen to KLOK, but I don’t too much anymore because they play too many oldies, which I hate. But KYA has the good rock and roll. The current songs I like are ‘Sweet and Innocent’ by Donny Osmond and ‘Timothy’ by the Buoys (which is about cannibalism).”
“The Blanchettes came over for a pheasant dinner tonight [with their two sons, Butch and Carl]. A couple of weeks ago when we were at the beach, Butch and I went out pretty deep in the water and when he said ‘Better hold my hand’ I thought he was getting fresh or something, but he wasn’t. Now he’s in the ‘in’ crowd. [My sister] Janine was telling jokes like a book called ‘Music Theory’ by Clara Net. Ho ho. But here’s a good one offered by Carl: ‘Hole in the Mattress’ by (ready?) Mister Completely!”
“I don’t feel too bad today. I made it through OK. Only threw up 4 times. My temperature was up to 102 degrees and climbing, but I took an aspirin and it zooped down to 100.6. But my stomach was in agony & I thought I was in a furnace. It’s funny how under these conditions your mind kind of leaves your body and wanders around on its own, while the mortal body will only lay and suffer, and hope for an end to the torment.”
2/25/71: “I had a murderous Chem test today and I’m beginning to get very worried. So far I have about a B-, and if I don’t bring it up I may wreck my 4.0 average. And I just CAN’T do that! It’s practically my life!”
Next day, 2/26/71: “I got the highest at our table on the Chem test [yesterday]. But it was only 41 out of 50. I hope he gives us some extra credit this semester or I’ll really just BOMB OUT!”
“Mr. Curtis came up to me today and said that he was shocked that I wasn’t taking Algebra II. However, baby, NO AMOUNT of coercing from him will prompt me to take it. I cannot stand math (except Geometry, which I love) and do not wish to burden my schedule with a course I do not like!”
“Today was rather unusual. I got to school at about 8:40 as usual, but inside it was dark. When the bell rang the power was still out and they wouldn’t let us in. We knew that if the power was off for about an hour, they’d let us go. So we stood outside and prayed until, at 9:30, the glorious words came: SCHOOL IS DISMISSED!”
It was really right out of a movie script, and a saccharine one at that. A couple of years ago I drove all the way to a small town in Maine in search of a farm, a house, and a family that I had loved and lost four decades earlier. Against all reason, I wondered if I could find the glorious place where, on the verge of adulthood, I had once spent three idyllic summers. But when I finally arrived, I saw that all of it had vanished. And then I turned . . . .
The people in Maine say that there are only two seasons in the state: August, and winter.
I saw Maine for the first time in August of 1975. My high school friend Jeanne – she of the wire-rimmed glasses whom my parents mistrusted – had married a man named Steve Harrington (I’m changing his last name, out of respect for his family’s privacy). How Jeanne – a paragon of narcissism – had landed Steve is something I’ll probably never understand, because he was the gentlest, sweetest man I’ve ever met. The two of them lived in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but he was a native Maine-iac and was up visiting his family at the time. The plan was that I would fly out to meet Jeanne in South Carolina and the two of us would drive up the East Coast together to Maine, where she would reunite with Steve and meet her new in-laws for the first time.
It was a crazy vacation because we were young (19) and somewhat reckless, and our adventures were abundant. We spent some time in New York City, seeing off-color shows at the Village Gate and closing down the bars. (It was a Village bartender who first introduced me to the wonders of Sambuca Romana, the clear licorice-flavored liqueur that’s as strong as whisky and absolutely must be drunk with three coffee beans floating in the glass. The drink is called “Sambuca con la Mosca,” which in Italian means “Sambuca with a Fly.” And there must be three beans, representing health, prosperity, and happiness. But, as usual, I digress.)
We also got stuck in the middle of a statewide drug bust in South Carolina – a bizarre story that will be told at some later date when I discuss my brushes with the law. 😉
Anyway, eventually Jeanne and I made it, pulling up at the Harringtons’ farmhouse at 5:00 one morning after an 18-hour drive through some dangerously misty backroads in New Hampshire. I remember the instrumental “Tubular Bells” coming eerily through the radio, white birches glowing like spectres in the blackness, and wisps of fog skulking low along the road. We’d been through so much that day. We’d driven 60 miles out of our way to the town of Woodstock so that we could stand on the farm where half a million kids had spent three days of love and rock ‘n’ roll, and it turned out to be the wrong site. We’d gotten stuck with a flat tire and no tools on the New York Thruway, and had had to sit miserable and shivering in a downpour until relief came. And after I accidentally loosened my grip on our trusty map and let it fly out through the open sunroof, we’d meandered lost down every side route, dirt road, and ghostly trail along the way.
Anyway, long after our edge of exhaustion, the mountains became level and the darkness became dawn. Jeanne and I pulled up to the farmhouse and were instantly met with the strongest, longest hugs imaginable from an extended family that had come in from far and wide to meet Steve’s new wife. And that was my warm orientation to rural Maine – a stone’s throw from the capital, Augusta, but a world away.
“Triangle Acres” read the sign on the roadside that marked the entrance to the farm. I don’t know how many acres the family had, but the land was enough to provide lodging for horses, cattle, a rooster, hens, sheep, a ram, and four dogs, all running around neighing, mooing, crowing, clucking, bleating, and barking at once. The land also provided sustenance for the Harrington garden, a veritable Eden of beans, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and oh-so-sweet butter-and-cream Maine corn. Off to the left stood a huge weatherbeaten barn, complete with cats and barn swallows and a hayloft. Behind the barn were woods and fields. And down by the road stood the family’s vegetable stand, which was never manned; a sign merely instructed customers to “Pick out your vegetables and put money in the jug,” which they did, on the honor system, with nary a hint of thievery.
The Harringtons lived in a century-old, two-story white clapboard farmhouse. I don’t remember much about the house except that it was well-worn but tidy, and it had many of the “appointments” common to old farmhouses, like pantries and built-in corner cupboards and a wood-burning stove. At night it was a little crazy – people on couches, cots, or on the floor, or outside in tents, trailers, or the hayloft in the barn. I suppose out of deference to my being a guest and a girl, though, I got to sleep upstairs in a tiny bedroom full of Charlie’s dusty Zane Gray paperbacks about the American frontier.
Charlie – to this day one of my favorite human beings of all time – was the patriarch of the family, a beanpole of a man, with a bald, sunburned head, a smattering of whiskers, a cigarette or pipe constantly hanging out of his mouth, and pants rolled up about six inches on the bottom (“darn these things,” he’d say, “they’re too blasted stiff”). He was born around 1909, which would have made him about 66 when we met. After the eighth grade he’d left school and gone to work on the railroads and then on construction sites.
I loved his stories and recorded some of them. “I been up to the top of Maine and back down again with this construction company, used to work seven days a week, holidays, 12-14 hours a day; we’d be so weary we’d walk along and trip over a little pebble in the road,” he told me. “Once it rained and stormed and we all decided to go home. The boss got mad but we said hell, we been workin’ every day since spring, we got a right to come home, but my little daughter Cherie, she was but 8 or 9 months at the time, if I saw her and came to pick her up in my arms, why, she’d scream ’cause she didn’t know me, her own fatha. Three years I lived in a tent. It had a hahdwood floor and a gas stove and heata and a sink, a bed . . . why, it’d be 20 degrees outside but so warm and comftable in my tent, maybe 70, 75 degrees, you know, yes, it was comftable. I took a bulldozah and plowed a hole in the woods so the wind’d go right over the top, see, and took a tarpaulin and put it over a pole, makin’ whatcha call a ‘fly,’ and covered everything with snow and leaves. I tell you it was comftable. But lonely, oh, it was so lonely.”
Charlie was sinewy but strong, hard-working but playful, and he had a keen sense of honor. The only time I ever saw him mad was when we all sat around the table one night and drank up all his whisky. For this I could be forgiven, because I was simply following his children’s lead. But that whisky was precious to him, and he laid into his kids the next morning when he discovered the empty bottle. We all sat there sheepishly and full of shame and of course replaced the booze the next day. Other than that, he was a jokester and a prankster and perennially of good cheer. I’ll never forget his favorite line about his philosophy of life and death: “I’ll know when I get t’heaven, because I’ll get t’live my dream of walkin’ barefoot across a field of naked women’s breasts.” He always said it with a twinkly grin and would leave us all laughing as he strolled off to the barn.
“Not everyone can get as much out of their land as you do, Papa Charlie. You must be awfully proud of this farm,” I once told him as he took some tobacco and rolled a cigarette. (I’d gotten that line from Easy Rider, but I meant it nonetheless. I thought he was everything a great man ought to be.)
“Dahlin’,” he said, “I’ve got everything heah with me. I’m retired now, but I do desehve t’be after so many yehs of wehk, and I’ve got my gahden and my woodchoppin.’ It’s so good, so good for a man t’be able to make a little money from his own hands, and I love my house so much that whenevah I leave, even just for a minute, I look back and akchally cry.”
In front of the house sat an ancient truck (the “Tonka Toy,” as it was affectionately named), an old beat-up ’52 pickup with wires and rusty bolts and levers hanging out, windows blistered or broken, seats torn out to reveal just bare springs. But it did its job, however haltingly. When Charlie finished talking to me about his house, he went screaming off with it into the woods, over the stumps and the rocks and the trees, choking to a stop every couple of minutes.
Gert, his wife, was four years younger. She was shaped like a barrel and had a raspy voice and wiry gray curls, and her teeth were either missing or askew. But she was loud and jolly, and she loved every second of managing this insane houseful of Maine-iacs. She’d been a looker in her younger years; I saw a photo of her once and nearly gasped with the recognition of what the aging process does to us. “Why do you insist on looking at those old scrapbooks?” she asked me. “I hate lookin’ at myself.” I remember that she said it with sadness, and it was the first time I realized the melancholy that can catch us when we’re not looking, when we are reminded what the years have wrought.
Jeanne’s husband Steve, with his soft southern drawl and his kind eyes, was one of five kids in the Harrington family. One sister, Judy, lived in California but was out visiting with her two young children. Brother George, who lived in Connecticut, sported an impeccable haircut and seemed a bit more upscale than the rest of the family. Cheryl, the youngest, was a good-humored young woman who always seemed to be rubbing cake in someone’s face. I didn’t know it then, but the next year she would catch leukemia and it would take her very quickly. After Cheryl died, they told me that Charlie would cry almost every night, thinking that no one heard him.
Then there was brother Ron, the oldest, who reminded me of Jack Kerouac – my favorite author at the time. Ron had been all over the country from east coast to west, bumming and fighting and riding the rails and doing odd jobs, and he was still a perennial vagabond. He was coarse and had an annoying giggle, but because he was a rambler and even physically resembled Kerouac, I romanticized him for a long time until I learned what a scalawag he was. He had a darling son we all called “Little Ronnie” who was only about 6 years old and whose mom hung around a lot but was no longer in any kind of relationship with his father. There was simply an understanding.
I was a child of the suburbs, and although I ran free in the San Jose orchards and knew my way around a fishing pole or a county fair, this was the first time I was introduced to rural living. And to say it was heavenly would be an understatement. The family and all of its cousins and extensions loved each other fiercely, and I was now a part of it.
I got to swim in the ice-cold, crystal-clear, cobalt blue waters of the local quarry.
I spent $4.50 on tickets to the drag races.
I dug my own worms, caught a few bass, and took flyfishing lessons from one of the cousins.
Out in the barn, I spent hours talking about life in the earthy-smelling hayloft. Sometimes a joint may have been involved.
We chased escaped piglets up and down the road until we were exhausted from laughing and running, and, by the way, we never caught the pigs.
I once accidentally left a gate open and a steer got loose, resulting in lots of hollering until he was recaptured.
I was also violently slammed in the butt by “Bucky” the ram. I’d been standing around in the pasture, minding my own business, when without warning I found myself hurtling through the air and landing squarely on my back. Luckily I was young and no body parts were damaged. And true to their code of integrity around woman and guests, the boys who witnessed it did not laugh. Not even a smirk.
We took the coon dogs out into the misty Maine woods at 1:00 in the morning, seeing no raccoons but inhaling deeply the fresh odor of loamy soil.
I went bareback horse riding down empty streets at midnight.
I shot high-caliber pistols at targets up near the waterfall.
I picked my own vegetables and shelled my own peas.
I saw Tom Petty in concert in Augusta, with a crowd about 1,000 times rowdier than any I’d ever experienced in the Bay Area. Beer, brawls, and beards in abundance.
In the evening, we sat outside and had huge family feasts. Once or twice we picked out lobsters and clams from a nearby distributor and cooked them up, but they were luxuries. So usually dinner was something like venison, thick homemade potato bread with fresh raspberry jam, abundant ears of garden corn, mustard pickles, fiddleheads, fresh peas, new potatoes, and strawberries. I mean, delicious.
At night we played spoons and drank whisky and made up stories and laughed until long past midnight.
Never once did we want for anything to do or anyone to hug.
So it was that shortly after Memorial Day in 2014, I pulled into that small town in Maine in search of a memory. All I wanted was to see that white clapboard house again, if it was still standing.
I couldn’t remember the address, so I’d done an Internet search, finding only the business address of a roofing company operated by a Harrington I didn’t know. Still, as soon as I saw the street name I knew it was the one. I thought that maybe one of the descendants was operating a business out of the old house.
When Julie and I pulled up, however, we saw that there was no more open land on the old spot – just some small, nondescript homes. I hadn’t had high expectations about seeing the old place again, so I just sat in the car and sighed and submitted wistfully to the inevitable shifts of time.
As we started to pull away, though, I glanced towards the opposite side of the street and thought for a moment that I saw a flash of white hanging from the bottom of a tree. It was a familiar-shaped sign with worn black lettering, and since it was hanging perpendicular to the street I had to get out and walk up to it to make out the words.
“Triangle Acres,” it read.
I looked up and saw the old house. The front of the bottom story was stripped down to bare wood. Wires and antennae and satellite dishes were now attached to the roof. But it was the same place, all right. A couple of boats were in the backyard, looking as if they had been marooned there for quite some time. There were a few sheds and a woodpile and a rusted-out garbage can.
I decided to take a picture of the sign, for old times’ sake, and I was standing in the road adjusting the focus when a woman strolled purposefully out of the house and directly towards me. “Can I help you?” she asked, in a way that was neither friendly nor antagonistic, just direct. She wanted to know who the hell I was, this stranger with a camera and a rental car with New York license plates.
“Well, I know this is kind of weird, but I’m from California and I came all the way up here just to see if I could find the house where I spent many summers – maybe before you were even born – with a wonderful family called the Harringtons,” I explained, taking out my old photo album so I could show her that I wasn’t a loon.
“Well, you’ve found it,” she said. “I live here with Ronnie Harrington and his father. I’m Ronnie’s girlfriend.”
Her name was Jamie, and she texted Little Ronnie (as he was apparently still called!), who was away as he often was, for weeks at a time, working seasonal construction jobs and trying to make ends meet. I figured he’d have forgotten me, but I was wrong. “Damn,” he texted back to her. “Paula was supposed to wait for me so I could marry her.”
His dad, Ron, had driven into town, and Jamie called him and asked him to come back right away, saying he had an old friend waiting for him.
There was no garden anymore, no barn, no animals. Jamie invited us in for a drink of water, and when I looked around I saw that the house was in some disrepair. I remember thinking that someone could easily fall through the floorboards. I doubt that Little Ronnie’s hard but sporadic work in construction was able to provide enough for upkeep and repairs on an old, creaky home. I started to feel embarrassed to be breezing in with my fancy camera and my L.L. Bean sweater.
Ron drove up about half an hour later. I figure he was about 80, still robust and not all that aged despite the 40 years, and he held my hand and was sweet as can be and wanted us to stay for dinner. We weren’t able to stay, but we spent a few hours talking about the family, especially old man Charlie, and much to their amusement I repeated Charlie’s notion of heaven and the naked breasts, and they laughed knowingly.
Gert had died of cancer in 1985, and Charlie had passed in 1990. Steve and Jeanne had long since divorced – such a shock! – and Steve was still living in the Carolinas, although he was struggling with health problems.
I don’t know exactly why Ron and his son hadn’t kept up the farm. I don’t know whether the younger Ronnie made a choice to work seasonally, or whether that was the only job he could find in an unsteady economy, or whether it was the only one for which he was suited. I don’t know how many strikes he may or may not have had against him, especially considering his father’s propensity for a nomadic, adventurous, but somewhat shiftless life.
But does the cause – which was probably a mix of many factors – really matter? I’m just plain lucky that I’ve been able to retire before the age of 60 and carry a fancy camera and hail from the land of artisanal toast and hand-massaged beef. So many of us live in a ridiculous bubble of comfort and security, and we take for granted how fortunate we are. Out here most of us think alike and vote the same way and share the same outrage at things we believe to be uncouth or boorish. We forget that many people live differently and suffer pain and hardships that we could never imagine having while we hunch over our computer screens or sit around with our glass of chardonnay and exclaim over mango foam.
This weekend I finished reading a little book called The Rangity Tango Kids by Lorraine Rominger. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for exceptional prose, nor would I recommend it to anyone under 50 who hails from an urban or suburban environment. It’s a folksy memoir written by a local woman from Winters, in northern California, about her childhood on a farm in Sonoma County, and what it was like growing up with a passel of brothers and sisters in a time whose traces are disappearing so fast that there are very few remnants left for us to savor. Although I didn’t spend my childhood on a farm, the memories and the values evoked in Ms. Rominger’s book brought me back to my youth.
“There were things I took for granted growing up that are gone now,” Rominger writes, “things my nieces and nephews will not have the opportunity to experience, like the simplicity of a farm family whose lives revolved around a place where we lived and worked, so our family and farm would prosper. Dad’s attachment to the land, and his father’s, is like none any of us will ever know. My grandparents have passed, but Dad and Grandpa Rominger have collectively been on the farm for nearly a century and have witnessed the wild, open country taken away over time. I prefer the world I grew up in, not the world I am growing old in.”
To our detriment, I believe, so many simple pleasures have vanished. If I could go back in time for a moment, I would. I would walk back onto that farm in Maine and remember the joys of physical exertion, the tastes of food right out of the earth, and the prolonged laughter that comes from family and friends actually interacting with each other, without judgment. I would let Bucky ram me from behind just so I could sail through the air again, free, without a care in the world. I would ride a horse bareback down an empty street at midnight.
So don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot
A few weeks ago, the Chronicle’s outdoor writer Tom Stienstra published a column that was a real blockbuster for me: one of Black Bart’s hideaways may have been discovered in the Sunol Regional Wilderness.
I was about 7 years old when I first learned about Black Bart in a thin little book called Stagecoach Days, a Sunset publication that Wells Fargo Bank gave away to its customers. A few years later, when I frequently insisted that my younger sister and I “play school” and that of course I be the teacher, Stagecoach Days was one of my two “textbooks.” (The other was the Bible. The sole reason I chose them was that they were the only books in the house of which we had two copies.)
Black Bart was an outlaw who robbed stagecoaches in the late 1800s, shortly after California’s great Gold Rush. I became obsessed with him for a couple of reasons. First of all, he was a “gentleman bandit” of sorts. Second, he was known to have left poems at his robbery sites, and one in particular became part of my repertoire. As a youngster and a bit of a loner, I took to memorizing things, and I could recite the states and their capitals, all three stanzas of “O Captain, My Captain,” the last two paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, assorted Kerouac quotes, and the entire Gettysburg Address. But my favorite piece of literature that I committed to memory was one of Black Bart’s poems. You’ll have to wait for it.
Born in England in 1829, Charles Boles (later Bolles, or Bolton, depending on his alias du jure) emigrated with his family to America when he was two years old. Not much is known about his childhood on a farm in upstate New York, but we do know that as a young man he and his brothers joined everyone else and their brothers in heading to California for the Gold Rush of 1848, hoping to strike it rich. Some were fortunate, but many came up empty. The Boles Brothers were in the latter group. They made two unsuccessful trips, and two of his three brothers actually died in California.
We also know that Charles fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, marching with Sherman through Georgia and suffering life-threatening abdominal wounds at the Battle of Vicksburg. Though his wounds were considered to be so bad as to preclude his ability to continue fighting, he rather heroically went back and served on the battlefield for three full years before being honorably discharged.
Charles eventually married and raised four children in Illinois and Iowa. But it seems that his stint in California had created in him an unshakeable urge to gamble, and he periodically would leave his family to mine for gold, at first in Montana and Idaho and eventually back in California. During this period he sent his wife a letter, recounting an event in which Wells Fargo agents tried to buy out his share of a small mine he was tending in Montana. When he refused, apparently the bank agents somehow cut off his water supply, forcing him to abandon the mine. His conviction that he had been wronged caused him to tell his wife that he was going to “take steps” to exact revenge. The poor woman never saw him again, and at this point she just assumed that he had died.
But he hadn’t. And gold fever still infected his bloodstream, so he headed back to California with one last hope of striking it rich.
In those days, stagecoaches were often used to transport passengers, mail, and valuables to and from areas not served by the railroad. Enterprising robbers realized that they had a convenient opportunity to simply travel to areas through which they knew the stage would be passing and quickly hold up the helpless driver and passengers without leaving a trace. They often would select a spot through which the stage would be traveling laboriously – e.g, up a steep hill – and spring out from the bushes, brandish their rifles, demand the loot, and scram out of there in very short order. The greatest bounty they could get was the box of money that companies like Wells Fargo transported to pay the workers who labored in their mines.
During the period 1870 through 1884, there were 313 attempted robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Wells had the money to hire some very accomplished detectives, though, who did a fairly good job of solving these crimes. Five miscreants were killed during the attempts, 11 were killed resisting arrest, 7 were hanged by lynch mobs, and 206 were ferreted out and sent to jail. Only 84 robberies were “unpunished,” but many of them, it turns out, were committed by the same person.
During this time, Charles Boles was living in San Francisco. He lived a rather highbrow life despite not necessarily having the means to do so, since all he appeared to own were some unsuccessful mining interests in the hills. He attended the theater and concerts, ate at the finest restaurants, wore natty clothes, and always sported a cane. The cane was fashionable rather than functional; he was in terrific shape, walking many miles a day. He reportedly never took a drink in his life, always carried a Bible with him, and was generally a respectable, quiet man who eschewed profanity and was not prone to any kind of excess other than his unending tendency to take a gamble.
Beginning in 1875, Wells Fargo stagecoaches traveling through California’s Gold Rush country would be hit 28 times by the same bandit. Some say he was afraid of horses and others say he simply couldn’t afford one, but in any case he walked to and from his crimes and carried a shotgun that he never fired, which was a good thing because it was so rusty that no bullet could have successfully traveled through its muzzle. He wore a flour sack with two holes cut out for the eyes, and he sported a linen duster (which is a long coat). Unfailingly polite, he never harmed a passenger; in fact, if they handed over their money or jewelry, he would insist on giving the items back to them. All he wanted was Wells Fargo’s money. And he was highly successful, netting thousands of dollars a year.
For me, though, the most delightful thing about the bandit was that on a couple of occasions he would leave poems at the site, like this one:
Here I lay me down to sleep
to wait the coming morrow; Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
and everlasting sorrow;
Let come what will, I’ll try it on
my condition can’t be worse
and if there’s money in that box
’tis munny in my purse
— Black Bart
Black Bart was the name of a fictional character who had appeared in a story called “The Case of Summerfield” that ran in the Sacramento Union in the early 1870s. That man, though, was a vicious villain and certainly didn’t resemble the gentleman who was robbing these stagecoaches. But the name sounded ominous, and the robber didn’t mind the fear it instilled in the public. He probably also thought the moniker would evoke an image that was such a far cry from his public persona that it would throw detectives off the trail.
The story goes that at his first holdup, in July 1875 in Calaveras County, Black Bart asked the driver to please “throw down the box” and shouted over his shoulder into the woods, “If he dares to shoot, give him a solid volley, boys.” The driver, on seeing several rifles pointed at him among the trees, swiftly threw down the box as ordered. Then, after the bandit disappeared, the driver discovered that the rifles in the woods were just meticulously crafted sticks.
It was at the scene of his fifth crime that Black Bart left the poem that I have memorized, and it makes me smile every time I repeat it (bear in mind that Stagecoach Days conveniently did not include this particular poem):
I’ve labored hard and long for bread
for honor and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
you fine-haired sons of bitches.
Black Bart committed his last robbery on November 3, 1883. A man with one of the greatest first names in the world – Reason McConnell – was driving a stagecoach out of Sonora alongside a 19-year-old boy named Jimmy Rolleri, who had just been gifted a new rifle and was out to do some rabbit hunting. At the bottom of a place called Funk’s Hill, Jimmy jumped down from the stage to look for rabbits and Reason continued up the incline. Black Bart leaped into the road at the summit and, as was customary for him, politely asked for the express box, which was bolted to the floor in an attempt to thwart such robberies. When Reason pointed out this situation, he was ordered by our robber to step down and unhitch the team, at which point Bart himself jumped up and started working on the box with a hatchet. Meanwhile, Reason slipped away and got Jimmy’s attention, and somehow three or four shots were then fired at Bart with Jimmy’s new rifle. The local newspapers reported that the driver had fired all the shots, but Jimmy’s family members insisted that after Reason missed the first two, Jimmy disgustedly snatched the gun from him and slightly wounded the bandit in the hand. (Apparently there is some evidence that Wells Fargo later gave Jimmy a fancy inlaid and engraved rifle.) In any case, only one of the shots grazed Bart, who took the $550 in gold coins and 3-1/4 ounces of gold dust worth $65 and got clean away.
Or so he thought.
Wells Fargo detective J.B. Hume was quickly dispatched to the scene, and there he discovered a black derby, magnifying glasses, field glasses, and a handkerchief, among other things. And in one corner of the handkerchief was a laundry mark.
Ultimately, Detective Hume and his associate Harry Morse traced the laundry mark to San Francisco and, after visiting 90 laundries, finally learned that that particular mark was used by a fine gentleman named C.E. Bolton. Mr. Bolton took frequent trips into the hills to check on his “mining interests,” but he always came back to his boarding house in San Francisco – which, by the way, was directly across from the police station. In fact, he often dined with the gentlemen of the police force and expressed an acute interest in that nasty outlaw Black Bart.
Detective Hume filed this report:
“Bolton, Charles E., alias C.E. Bolton, alias Black Bart, the PO-8 [“poet,” get it?], age 55 years; Occupation, miner; Height 5 ft. 7-1/2 inches; Color of hair, gray; color of eyes, blue; gunshot wound on side. He is [a] well educated, well informed man, has few friends. He is a remarkable walker, has great strength, endurance.”
Charles pleaded guilty to the one crime and spent four years in prison at San Quentin. During that time he sent a number of letters to his wife, professing his love, expressing remorse for this crimes, and asking her for forgiveness. She apparently responded that she would be willing to take him back, but when he was released from prison, he vanished.
He was the most successful bandit in the history of the American west.
There are countless rumors, folktales, tall tales, old saws, fables, and fantasies about what happened to Charles after he was released. Three Wells Fargo stagecoach robberies took place shortly thereafter, but no one was ever caught, and there was no tangible evidence linking Charles to the crimes. In one story, however, Detective Hume somehow tracked him down and offered to pay him a lifetime pension out of Wells Fargo’s money if he would just, for the love of God, stop ripping them off. Some say he moved to New York City, where he spent his last days. Others speculated that he went back to Montana to try more mining. The most popular story seems to be that someone saw him boarding a steamer and heading for Japan.
So, who were the “fine-haired sons of bitches” to whom Charles directed his antipathy? His hatred probably didn’t emerge during his Civil War days; in researching this piece I learned that it was common among Confederate soldiers – but not among Union soldiers – to aim their sights at companies that appeared to have too strong on a grip on the economic machinery that ran the country. No, most likely it happened when the Wells Fargo agents used their power to unfairly force him off his own mine. So his particular grudge was probably against that one company. And perhaps the wealthy money-lenders could afford to keep their hair fine? I don’t know. Maybe someone can look that up for me.
I know that it’s wrong of me to harbor any feelings of admiration for a criminal. And just because he stole from a massively wealthy company does not mitigate the crime. I learned this early on from my mother. When I was in college, my friend Jeanne and I concocted a scheme by which we could talk endlessly to each other, long-distance, for free. In those days, of course, it cost a ton of money to make a long-distance call, and there was no way my parents would have paid the bill for such a luxury. (Plus they completely distrusted Jeanne because she wore wire-rimmed glasses.) But Jeanne was working as a telephone operator on the East Coast, and she had access to credit cards held by large corporations. So I would find a remote, unoccupied phone booth somewhere, and I would somehow place a call to her, through an operator, that allowed me, without charge, to give her the number on the phone in the booth. Then I would hang up and she would call me back using a random corporation’s credit card number.
As I type this, I am absolutely appalled at myself. But back then I thought that it didn’t matter because those big companies had unending funds and they would never miss the paltry amount it would cost them. I was so clueless about what I was doing that, in fact, I went home and cheerfully told my mother all about the scheme and how clever we were and that we would never get caught. Very calmly, but while undoubtedly choking back her complete disgust, my mother explained to me that stealing is stealing. It took all of two minutes for her to point my moral compass away from south and back to true north, where it has been ever since.
Still, I will always secretly admire California’s gentleman bandit, and I will forever appreciate the way in which he poetically told those fine-haired sons of bitches that they had stepped on his toes for far too long.
I was hoping for yet another dream trip when I took Amtrak last month from California to the East Coast and back. But the day before I boarded the first train, a god-awful microbe boarded me and rendered me virtually unable to speak, not to mention saddling me with a bad cold, a rattly cough, and an angry sore throat all the way to Maryland. The return trip, thankfully, would be much better. As usual, I took a notebook (yes, and a real pen!), and I thought I’d share some of those scribblings with you here, in this ’cross-country train travel primer.
October 4, 2016 (California Zephyr, eastbound from Emeryville to Chicago, day 1)
Long-distance Amtrak passengers can travel in one of two ways: by coach, or in a sleeper car. Coach travel is the most economical way to go. For about $230 (if you get your ticket well in advance) you can ride the rails from the San Francisco Bay Area to Washington, D.C. The trip takes four days and involves two trains: the California Zephyr runs to Chicago, and after just a few hours’ layover, the second train (the Capitol Limited) departs for D.C. Not a bad price, really. But you have to be willing to sleep in your reclining seat (or grab a few winks in the observation car, if you don’t get chased out). There’s no question, though, that the seats are leagues better than those on an airplane; they’re comfortable, wide, and long (plenty of legroom), with leg and foot rests, eating trays, reading lights, and electrical outlets.
The other option is to get a room in a sleeper car. Generally, there are two choices: a roomette or a bedroom. Both have fold-down bunk-style beds, but the bedrooms also have a combination shower/bathroom. (The other two options are the “family bedroom,” which is wider and has room for two children in addition to the adults, and an ADA room – both located on the lower level of the train.) Restrooms and a huge shower room, accessible only to sleeper car passengers, are also on the lower level. All meals are included. These days I opt for the bedroom. It’s a perk, I suppose – and a necessity – of being, shall we say, “seasoned.”
So, how do you pack for a train trip? Well, let me just start by emphasizing that most of the coach seats and sleeper cars are on the upper level on long-distance trains, and to get there you have to ascend a narrow, twisting set of stairs. There is very little room in which to maneuver, and unless you’re a linebacker, you probably don’t have the strength to carry a heavy, loaded suitcase directly in front of you. So most people leave any heavy suitcases downstairs where they will cheerfully await them when they disembark, and they carry a lighter, soft bag up those treacherous stairs on their back. I learned this tip from my friend Leon Emmons. I did not follow his advice when I made the trip in 2014, and the attendants (formerly called porters) had to schlep my corpulent suitcase up the stairs like sherpas because there was no way I could do it. So this time I got smart. I bought a wheeled backpack. That way, I could throw it onto my back as I went up the stairs but could also wheel it along behind me in the train stations, etc.
This idea was very good, but it would have been more brilliant had I not filled the backpack so full of unnecessary items that it was almost heavier than my suitcase. I nearly snapped my lumbago. I wore my turquoise “train outfit” today and brought two or three no-iron train shirts and miscellaneous socks and underwear. That would have been fine. But I also felt that I needed my SF Giants orange polo shirt to wear during tomorrow’s wild-card playoff game with the Mets. I also packed peanut butter crackers, granola bars, and chocolate-covered almonds for snacks. And I had to have a hairdryer (gotta look good), a huge sundries bag, and about 30 types of drugs for my virus. Of course, I was laden with gadgets like my phone, an iPad, my brand-new camera, and an iPod (which my sister Janine says is “so last-millennium”). And I brought a jacket because I didn’t know what the temperature would be like. All of these came in handy. But to top it off, even though I downloaded books onto my iPad, I insisted on bringing Springsteen’s new hard-cover autobiography, which must weigh 5 pounds. And finally, for who knows what reason, I packed a bottle of vodka. Now mind you, I really don’t drink vodka. But I did the same thing for my last train trip, and both times I never once opened the bottle. What is wrong with me???
So, what are the “bedrooms” like? Well, they’re sufficient but small, and they require a certain amount of flexibility and limberness. On last year’s trip, I was assigned to room A. Little did I know that room A is legendarily difficult to navigate. Its design is a bit different from the other rooms, with the bathroom situated so that if you need, say, to get up in the middle of the night, you have to crawl down to the foot of your bed and roll directly into the bathroom. There is just no room to even stand up. So when I made reservations for this trip, many months ago, I called rather than book online because I wanted to specifically ask not to get room A. And it turned out that that request was not a problem at all. (In fact, I suspect it may be quite common.)
The two beds are bunk-style, and when folded back up each morning the bottom bed becomes a couch. There is also a little table and chair, a sink, a trash can, and the bathroom. The shower faucet is almost directly over the toilet, so many people just sit on the toilet, with the seat closed, and take their showers that way. It’s easier to sit down when the train is barreling along and you don’t want to be thrown pell-mell into the shower controls. That could cause, in the words of my friend Mark Houts, “quite the contusion.”
Riding Amtrak is not good for people who have any expectations whatsoever about service and amenities. For example, sleeper cars are supposed to come with bottled water, soap, and shampoo. Only once on my six sleeper-car train trips did I ever get shampoo. Usually, but not always, I got soap. In some cases, I had to ask my attendant for water every single day, while on other occasions there were cases of water outside the rooms near where the juice and coffee are set up for sleeper passengers. Basically, it’s all just – as the kids would say – random.
I’d like to mention, too, that every sleeper car includes an array of buttons that do not work. There are all kinds of knobs and levers related to temperature and air flow, and none of them makes a whit of difference. There is also a button called “Music Control,” and I’d love to know what function it ever served, because now it serves none at all.
I wanted to get an observation car seat before we got to Sacramento this morning. The observation car is open to everyone and is terrific because it has ceiling windows and is often a place for genial conversation. Unfortunately, because my throat hurt so much, I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone in the observation car. There were definitely some chatterboxes there. One guy who lives in Santa Rosa said that he drives into Guerneville every day to do a radio show that is “part 60s soul and mostly 50s doo-wop.” I think he might be “Papa A,” a regular on KGGV-FM.
There was some discussion about whether a person should be allowed to save a seat in the observation car. The conductor’s announcement when we first boarded noted that no seat-saving was allowed. But one woman kept making an issue of it, asking people around her whether they agreed with the rule. She wanted to save a seat for her husband for at least an hour(!), and she disagreed with the rule. I firmly believe in the rule (quelle surprise!) and I wondered who on earth she thought she was, but my near-laryngitis kept me mute, which was about making me crazy.
For dinner, an attendant comes to the sleeper cars first to take reservations, and I typically ask for the earliest time because I am constantly hungry. I was really worried this evening because of my laryngitis and the catch in my throat and my congestion; it was all enough to terrify any self-respecting healthy person. But no one shrank away in revulsion, and I was at least able to eke out a question or two, although there was no way I could form a complete sentence and talk about myself.
I sat next to a very young woman named Michaela, who was getting off in Elko. She’s from the Sonora area near Yosemite but is moving to Elko with her fiancé. She’d typically taken buses before (including one to Idaho), but said trains were much better. Across from me were Lori and her husband. They’d formerly lived in upstate New York but had recently moved to Florida. Although they must have been at least in their fifties, she was super hip and had a nose ring plus all manner of chains and other metallic accoutrement on her left ear. They’d been out visiting her son, who lives in Santa Clara and used to work for LinkedIn. Because the New Orleans-to-Florida tracks were completely damaged in Katrina, they couldn’t take a southern route but had to take the Zephyr east to Chicago, the Capitol Limited to D.C., and then a third train to Florida.
Creamy tortellini with pesto
The food is free for sleeper car passengers, who have to pay only for alcohol and whatever tip they want to leave. The herbed chicken was excellent and came with a baked potato (fair) and green and yellow beans (cooked to absolute death). The chocolate lava cake for dessert was outstanding, though. The couple across from me had the Signature steak, which seems to get high marks from everyone. I may try it tomorrow.
After dinner, Karen (our attendant) came by to set up the bed and to remind me that we’ll be in another time zone tomorrow morning, so I set my watch and camera. All time zone changes on this entire trip happen in the middle of the night, conveniently.
October 5, 2016 (California Zephyr, eastbound to Chicago, day 2)
I had a terrible night because of my horrendous throat pain. But, not completely daunted, I got up at 6:30 and donned my Giants polo shirt and earrings to bring my team luck for the game later today. One of the attendants, who complimented me on my turquoise train shirt yesterday, exclaimed, “Nice sweater! You’re just a fashion extravaganza!” Ha ha ha!
We stopped for about 20 minutes in Grand Junction, Colorado, so I got off to stretch my legs and then took the opportunity to get some hot tea in the café car (well, a cup of hot water with a Lipton tea bag on top of it).
You can have dinner brought to your sleeper if you want, and tonight I decided to do that because of my near-total voice loss. Unfortunately, the Signature steak arrived nearly raw. I hated to do it, but I had to call my room attendant and protest (using more gestures than speech). The chef then personally brought a new meal to me and said that mine had been put on the wrong tray. Well, I have to say, the steak was utterly delicious, with a sauce to die for! For some reason I had to buy a half-bottle of red wine because they did not have it by the glass as they do in the dining car. I drank one glass and saved the rest. That’s how ill I was feeling!
Leon and Julie both texted me throughout the Giants game with updates. The Giants won with Bumgarner’s pitching and a Conor Gillaspie homer! Now they play the Cubs. I’ll be fine if the Cubs win and take the whole darned Series. They’ve waited over a century, for goodness’ sakes.
October 6, 2016 (transfer from California Zephyr to Capitol Limited, eastbound to Harpers Ferry, day 3)
I’m so bummed not to be able to talk. In the observation car this morning I heard one conversation about the Cubs and another very intellectual discussion about jazz between two obviously knowledgeable fellows. Dang!
We got to Chicago a little early, so I had 3-1/2 hours to kill before our 6:00 boarding time. Chicago’s Metropolitan Lounge – which is open to sleeping-car, business, and Amtrak Select passengers – offers drinks, snacks, wi-fi, and comfortable furniture. Today’s snacks were just Chex-Mix type things, and they were a bit too spicy for me; I tried them and immediately was overcome by a paroxysm of coughing. But the unlimited cold orange juice made me feel better.
We boarded at 6:00. I didn’t want a dinner reservation, so I just had peanut butter crackers. Not a very nutritious day.
There was a horrible burning-wires smell in the train shortly after we boarded and one of the conductors (a woman!) walked through the train and told me that an engine had quit working and they had to do a last-minute repair. The beauty of this is that when she mentioned the failed engine, I did not panic. I did not start to cry. I did not hope that there was a priest on board who could give me the Last Rites. I did not have to prepare myself to plunge 30,000 feet to my agonizing death. No, I was not on a plane. I was on a safe, hospitable train. I thought nothing of a bad engine. Ah, the Zen of it all.
October 7, 2016 (Capitol Limited, eastbound to Harpers Ferry, day 4)
TIP: To avoid constantly being thrown from side to side as you walk through a train, you need to employ a bit of a Charlie Chaplin walk. Watch the conductors, and imitate them as they point their toes outward and sway from side to side while they move down the aisle. That way you won’t bruise your boob in every doorway, or go sprawling across a diner’s lap. Not that I’ve done any of that.
I had a hard night. It was freezing in the room and I actually had to wear my North Face fleece jacket all night! I noticed in the morning that I had no soap, so I had to unscrew the hand soap dispenser from the sink. Then, to make matters worse, I discovered that the plastic cover was up on the toilet paper holder when I took a shower, so the entire roll of paper was soaked through. From that point on I had to use the sandpaper Kleenex. Luckily this was the last day, and it was a short one; I arrived at Harpers Ferry around noon.
This blog post is about train travel, so right now I won’t go into the time I spent with my wonderful friends in Maryland. Suffice it to say that I had a lovely time, and I only wish that I could have talked more with my friend Ellen, who put me up in her home and helped nurse me back to life while I could only croak at her. She even had to translate what I was saying one time for a waitress! But I was better by the time I got to Baltimore, and I spent some of my best days that week jamming with my friends Julie R. and Lauren, who play folk music together. I even got to drum with them at a gig. Someday I will try to put into words the joy of making music with other people.
October 17, 2016 (Capitol Limited, westbound from Rockville to Chicago, day 1)
The closest Capitol Limited station from Baltimore is Rockville, Maryland. I didn’t realize that the Rockville station has no restroom and, as it turns out, no signage at all indicating that it’s an Amtrak station. I freaked out (again, quelle surprise!) but Julie R., bless her heart, figured it all out for me. The train was supposed to stop for only one minute(!), so I was worried about finding someone to store my huge suitcase below the sleeper car, but they were very efficient, actually called my name, and loaded my bag while I boarded. Carlos, my attendant, had already made me 6:00 dinner reservations. I was really looking forward to eating in the dining car and speaking with other humans!
I had dinner tonight with the world’s nicest couple, from Michigan. She (Nancy) just “retired” as a PT, although she still does occasional contract work. He taught middle school for 30+ years. They spend their winters warming up in south Texas, near Brownsville (he has a brother there). They have three or four kids and a couple of new grandchildren. She had just heard that her daughter, who sleepwalks, tried to step over her husband in bed and woke up as she was crashing to the floor and breaking her shoulder. Too bad Nancy was on the train trip and not there to help her! Oh, and they told me that Brownsville is apparently the grapefruit capital of the country. Who knew that?
I had the steak, creamy mashed potatoes, the usual mixed vegetables cooked to death, a salad, a roll, a chocolate dessert, and a glass of cabernet.
October 18, 2016 (transfer from Capitol Limited to California Zephyr, westbound to Emeryville, day 2)
I slept deeply last night. I’d been dreaming that I had bedbug bites all over my toes, but I woke up when we pulled into a stop. I peered out the window and saw passengers pouring off the train, so I sprang out of bed and actually yelled out loud, “Oh, my God, we’re in Chicago already!” only to calm down, look at my watch, and note that it was 4:45 a.m. Then I saw that the station sign said “Toledo.”
In Chicago’s Metropolitan Lounge, this time, they started putting out wine bottles and veggies and cheese at around noon. I was worried about my nervous stomach, though, as always and decided to forego anything until I got on the train.
We boarded at 1:30. I was the first one into our car. After I plopped myself in the room, I tore into a bag of Dove chocolate-covered almonds and shoveled peanut butter crackers into my mouth like a ravenous jackal. And it was right about then that the drama began.
A woman and her husband, who had been behind me in line, were trying to navigate their way down to their room (A) at the other end of the sleeper car. But the woman could not get her legs to operate at all, so two conductors had to get her up the narrow, steep, twisty stairs. Her husband Bill was completely useless because he paid no attention to her pleas for assistance. It turned out that she had multiple sclerosis, and I don’t know whether she was having a surprise attack or whether she was always unable to use her legs. In any case, after they got her up the stairs, one of the conductors was needed elsewhere, and it became clear that she would have to drag herself painstakingly along the floor, down the entire length of the aisle.
(I heard Bill say that the ADA room had been booked by someone else and that he had called in advance and was told that the aisle would accommodate her walker, which it clearly did not.)
Now, here’s where I was faced with a choice, and where I fell somewhat short. As I mentioned before, I had booked bedroom E a year in advance so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the dreaded room A. But I thought this woman could greatly benefit from my room, since she was already approaching it and it would take her forever to crawl down to room A at the other end. Not to mention the humiliation of the experience for her. I hemmed and hawed internally and cursed the whole situation and cursed my own inaction and selfishness, but finally, as she was just past my door by an inch, I forced myself out into the hallway to ask the conductor whether I should switch rooms with that poor woman and her husband. Surprisingly – and I have to admit that I was relieved – he told me that the couple’s belongings were already situated in room A and that I should not attempt to make the switch.
I still don’t know that the conductor was acting in everyone’s best interest when he made that decision. He came back later, thanked me for making the offer, and said, “You don’t want room A. It’s small and undesirable, and it wouldn’t be fair to you to switch.” In retrospect, it seems to me that he should have been thinking more about the woman with MS than about me or what was “fair.” Not to mention the fact that there were two people who were going to be in that room, one of whom was disabled and would not be able to leave the room for any reason until she arrived in Sacramento two days later. It took the woman thirty minutes to crawl to her room. I think this will haunt me forever.
After I got over that trauma, I was eager to get down to the Zephyr’s observation car and possibly speak, with actual functioning vocal cords, to a fellow passenger. And much to my surprise and amusement, who should be in the car, down in his customary seat at the end, wearing his customary camouflage hat, but the Chico guy from 2014! Harvey! He was loudly bloviating as usual, and I took my seat at the other end of the car. But no one sat near me, so I was alone with my thoughts.
I was also eager for dinner, and I decided to bravely sample the tortellini. I have to say, they were al dente and pretty good! They were strangely topped with those bland overcooked veggies, but I still enjoyed the meal.
My dinner companions were Les, a bald man whose accent I immediately picked out as Philadelphian, and Barbara, a reed-thin woman with pigtails, an abundance of wrinkles, and red rheumy eyes. Les is heading out to visit his daughter in L.A., but he’s going to get off in Emeryville and kick around San Francisco for a week first. He used to work for the railroad, first as an accountant but then as a computer guy in the 1950s, using keypunch cards. He never went to college but worked his way up to a fairly high supervisorial position. Barbara is from Virginia and goes out to visit her son – a biogeneticist – in Mill Valley every year. For some reason she spoke in barely above a whisper, so it was hard to hear her. She did say that the previous night she had dined with a “crazy” woman who assumed that all food on the train was all-you-can-eat and free for everyone!
October 19, 2016 (California Zephyr, westbound to Emeryville, day 3)
Paul, our nice attendant – who, by the way, is also a PGA professional – came by as we were pulling into Union Station in Denver to tell us that the dining car was open, so I flew down there to beat the Denver rush. I had scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, a biscuit, and coffee – all good. Clara and Jack, two 80-year-olds who had lived in Reno for 40 years, were seated across from me. Both of them were in terrific shape. I’m beginning to think that 80 is the new 50! At first I was slightly put off by him, because he seemed to be constantly correcting me or “teaching” me something, albeit in an extremely pleasant way, which was unnerving. Well, it turned out that he was an emeritus professor of philosophy, so I suppose his lifelong propensity to teach was exerting itself. I found myself not only nodding but subtly indicating to him that I already knew what he was trying to impart by answering “right,” or “yes, indeed,” or “I’ve been there.” Because he was born and raised in Chicago, I thought it might interest him to hear my one-minute condensed story about Myra Stratton, the Chicago nun with Alzheimer’s whom I’d befriended and whose life I had researched (https://mondaymorningrail.com/2016/10/02/finding-myra/), but although he smiled a lot he didn’t seem particularly interested. Clara was the one who asked me questions. She was a law librarian for a national judicial education center, so she knew about the Center for Judicial Education and Research (part of the Judicial Council of California, where I used to work). She had librarian hair – neck length, bangs, a straight and simple cut – and no wrinkles whatsoever! Jack interjected that there is no judicial education for trial judges “anywhere,” but I pointed out that, at least in California, there certainly are minimum judicial educational standards. I don’t know where he gets his information. Oh, and apparently he teaches a class in “reasoning” to judges. Whatever! Anyway, they visit their son in San Francisco frequently and of course Jack had to tell me all about the Bernal Heights neighborhood as if I had no clue about it. But he really was a sweet man. He had trained at one point to be a pastor, so he had that serene manner about him.
The train is really an introvert’s dream. At times – sometimes for hours while going through the Rockies – there is no online connectivity at all (no wi-fi on the long-distance trains). WHAT??! How on earth do people survive? Well, they read, listen to music (perhaps on their so-last-millennium iPod), watch the scenery, think. Or write. When I got back to the sleeper, I continued reading The Girl on the Train – which, by the way, I think is highly overrated. I figured the whole thing out from almost the very beginning, and normally I am completely flummoxed, confused, and in the dark about everything.
At one point over the Rockies, Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero” and then the Mills Brothers’ “The Glow Worm” played on the iPod. The train rushed through a long pitch-black tunnel and I danced crazily to both of them. No one could see me. For those of you who don’t know “Glow Worm,” it’s a song that just makes you happy.
At around 11:30 I headed for the observation car. The more scenic side was completely full, with Harvey down at the end as usual. And, just as in 2014, he was talking about his guns. Mainly about calibers. At first he had a young woman caught captive, and he was telling her that he’d taught his nephews how to assess wind direction before peeing outside. He also mentioned that he’d tried to get his daughter to pee outside as well, but she’d have none of it. (Well, duh, Harvey!) Then he roped a really old codger into his conversation, and the two of them had an amusing “discussion” during which they didn’t respond to anything each other said!
The next victim was a sweet, small man whose only interjection was that he believed in the Bible and eternal life. Harvey responded that he disagreed about the Bible but made it a point never to discuss religion or politics because it always ended in animosity. He showed a sensitive side, too, talking fondly about his college-age daughter and mentioning that he and his sister were both adopted. His ex-wife, he said, was a “mess,” a former singer who messed up her life when she was on the brink of a contract with RCA. And he himself, he admitted, had made mistakes with drugs and alcohol in the past. He said that he’d never lied to his wife, but that there were things he omitted (it was her fault, he claimed, because she didn’t ask!).
There were some Mennonite couples in there, too, as well as a group of mentally challenged adults. Definitely a diverse bunch!
I saw a bald eagle as we glided by. And that reminds me. There’s a new Google television ad with four hipsters on a train paying no attention to what is outside the window but instead giggling gleefully over the virtual reality headsets they’re wearing. That commercial makes me absolutely apoplectic.
Dinner tonight was the chicken again, but this time instead of being herb-crusted it was in a terrific chopped-tomato sauce. And I want to bathe in that chocolate lava cake with the warm caramel center. My dining mates were Joleen and Ned (a couple from Kansas) and Matt, a young, extraordinarily handsome man from Australia with reddish hair and a trim beard. He recently got out of the Australian navy and is currently driving trucks. The navy wants him back, but he’s at a crucial crossroads, not knowing how he wants to make that decision. Of course, I urged him to follow his heart and be neither swayed nor flattered by persuasion. He comes to the U.S. every year and makes it a point to take at least one train ride per visit. He said the Australian trains are six times as expensive as Amtrak, are only for rich tourists, and are decidedly not worth it. Joleen and Ned have been married for 52 years and live in Kansas, where their families have been for centuries. Ned said their family tree is really a “family shrub.” He had been in public education for 50 years, starting out working stockrooms and sweeping floors but ending up teaching, coaching, counseling, and eventually serving as a high school principal and then assistant superintendent. He claimed that he and Joleen are the only two people in Kansas not voting for Donald Trump.
Afterwards I decided to spontaneously head down to the café car and ask for a hot toddy. After all, my friends had been recommending it to me during my bout with this awful cold, and even though the cold is all but gone, my voice is hoarse and catchy, and I still have a slight cough. The guy gave me a cup of hot water, a container of honey, and a mini-bottle of Jack Daniels. I plopped down at a table in the observation car and the man across from me looked over and said, “Ah, you have the makings of a hot toddy.” So I ended up talking with him and his wife a while. They were headed west to go to an annual reunion of soldiers who had shared a tent in the Vietnam War in 1965. These four guys and their wives had been getting together every year for decades.
October 20, 2016 (California Zephyr, westbound to Emeryville, day 4)
Around 4 p.m. today (and so far, miracle of miracles, the train is exactly on time!), I will disembark in Emeryville, be put on an Amtrak bus to the Temporary Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, and then need to get a cab home. Stressful!
[Note: I ended up doing just fine getting home. But I have a confession to make. There was only one cab waiting at the bus station when we got there, and I literally ran past Joleen and Ned to get to it. I needed to get to the west side of town through rush-hour traffic, and it was going to be a long trip for my weary bones. I can’t be nice all the time, can I?]
As we pulled into Reno, the dining car announced “last call” for breakfast, so I zipped down there. The oatmeal with raisins and honey sounded like a good plan, but they were out. So I had my standby of scrambled eggs, grits, a biscuit, and coffee. Across from me was a young couple from Idaho who had just finished moving themselves (in four 1,000-mile trips!) to southern Utah to be near his 77-year-old mother. He had long-ish hair and looked almost exactly like John Tesh (remember him?), and she looked a little like the Piper character from “Orange Is the New Black,” except worn around the edges. To me she looked a lot older than he did, but I’m not great with ages. They were taking three trains to go visit a friend in Spokane, then were riding a motorcycle down to San Francisco, and then were heading on to Atwater in southern California, where they would be visiting her daughter and new grandchild. Mother and daughter had been estranged and had not spoken in four years but had had some sort of breakthrough. He was a truck driver and was clearly very smart. He said he’d spent two years in a Holiday Inn Express in Nevada, walking across the street each morning to work, trucking fuel somewhere (he was a “fuel specialist”), returning to the motel at the end of the day and falling asleep, only to do it all again the next day, for 70(!) hours a week. It was a lonely job and he got to know the hotel workers better than any family member or friend. He was kind of mesmerizing – a fluid, brilliant storyteller. Next to me was a 30-something, short-haired, tough and stocky blond woman who’d grown up in New Jersey but moved to Berlin and was living there as a freelance translator of architectural and museum materials. All of us tentatively ventured into the realm of EU, German, and American politics. We lingered a long time. It finally eked out that all of them were against Trump but rarely discussed issues with friends or families because of the potentially damaging rifts that could result. The German woman made a couple of inflammatory and denigrating remarks about Americans but I held my tongue even though my blood pressure spiked and I almost threw a clot. Sometimes it’s best to just listen. It’s interesting to hear what Europeans think of us anyway.
I’ve been spending my final hours listening to music. The most recent songs have been:
Desperadoes Waiting for a Train (The Highwaymen)
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down (Kris Kristofferson)
Samba Pa Ti (Santana)
Friday I’m in Love (The Cure)
Girl from the North Country (Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash)
The Waiting (Tom Petty)
Riding on a Railroad (James Taylor)
Rise to Me (The Decemberists)
Seven-Year Ache (Roseanne Cash)
For some reason, “Seven-Year Ache” makes me cry today. It was such a dream to play music with my friends in Maryland, and it upsets me to live so far from some of the dearest people in my life. At one time they all lived in California; why did they have to move away? I vow to myself to forever stay in touch. Hang on, hang on, hang on to the people you love.
Many people, when I tell them about traveling by rail across the country, say that instead they would like to take “the train that goes across the Canadian Rockies.” But that is a different experience. It is an elite tourist train that touts its “luxury and comfort beyond compare” and, by the way, puts you up in a hotel at night.
This is not my aspiration. I love Amtrak. Amtrak is a passenger train; more than 30 million people a year climb on board. It doesn’t cost $5,000. It allows the average person to get from point A to point B. But it remains constantly in political danger, and I continue to urge people to ride and support the passenger rails. They are a bridge for all of us.
I don’t want to be in a hotel. The amenities might not be perfect, but being on a train is like being in a moving cottage with beautiful picture windows and the great American expanse passing in front of your eyes. I want to be falling asleep to the rhythmic rumble of the wheels and to the periodic squeaks, squeals, and groans, the random hisses, and of course the low-pitched whistle of that powerful locomotive.
We need these trains. They are honest. They are for everyone. They are longtime survivors of a simpler time. They honor the past and they honor our country. And they make me feel safe.
I have spent many exhausting and frustrating years recommending to my nieces and nephew, as they entered college, that they sign up for a course in Entomology. That’s right – bugs. I’ve emphasized strongly and repeatedly that the course would prove to be a transformative experience. For me, it actually provided confirmation of the existence of God. I am completely serious.
But no one ever listened to my advice, no one ever took the course, and to this day I continue to be appalled.
So I am now going to take up another cause in hopes that one person – just one! – among my legions of readers will adopt my counsel. Here it is: Watch the “CBS Sunday Morning” show.
This charming TV show was recommended to me by my friend Gigi, who shares with me the desire to shut out the disturbing elements in life and ferret out the poignant, the generous, the beautiful, the artful, and the heroic. The 90-minute program, hosted by the delightful Charles Osgood, features beautifully written and filmed vignettes about regular people, some of whom have done extraordinary things in very simple ways. The stories are folksy, sweet, emotional, informative, and always eminently respectful of their subjects, no matter how eccentric.
My all-time favorite piece on “CBS Sunday Morning” was about 10-year-old twin boys whose love of the game Battleship turned into a trip to the aircraft carrier Yorktown in South Carolina, which resulted in their learning about a still-living World War II sailor with whom they became instantly enamored. Even talking about the man made them burst out crying. “We want to hear what his voice sounded like, we want to touch him, we want to know him a lot more,” one of them said through his tears. The story is about how their surprise meeting with the 90-year-old sailor changed all of their lives. I blubbered through the whole thing.
[You can watch the story at the link below. If you can get through the short video without crying, please leave a “comment” to that effect and I will immediately declare you to be a hardhearted fussbudget.]
I was catching up on my “Sunday Morning” shows last week when I was particularly captivated by a story about fossilized wood that is pilfered every year from the Petrified Forest in Arizona’s stunning Painted Desert. This was a familiar subject to me because in 2001 I was conscripted to actually return a piece of petrified wood to that same area.
In the fall of that year, I decided to drag Julie on a month-long road trip down nearly the entire length of Route 66. The whole thing came about because I had fallen obsessively in love with the new, retro-looking Thunderbirds that had just been released, and I was determined to get one. Frustrated with the prohibitively long waiting lists and outrageous dealer markups in California, I had the brilliant idea to call some dealers in Kentucky. Kentucky is Julie’s native state, and we were out there often to visit her family anyway. It turned out that at a dealership in Versailles (pronounced “Ver-SAILS” in Kentucky), lo and behold there was no markup and no waiting list. So we put in our order, and I came up with the plan to drive the car back home to California on Route 66. We would take our time, spending a few weeks cruising appreciatively down the historic road that had been the conduit for so many Americans searching for better lives.
Not all that many decades ago, Route 66 (or “The Mother Road”) was the main travel route for people crossing the country. It became official in 1926 when, with the automobile establishing itself in the minds of Americans as their ticket to freedom and prosperity, the U.S. government decided to create a comprehensive network of interstate highways. As Bobby Troup wrote in his famous song, it “winds from Chicago to L.A” and covers 2,451 miles, eight states, and three time zones. It begins in Illinois, drops down into the verdant state of Missouri, clips a corner of the Kansas plains, plows through the Oklahoma dust, then heads straight west out of Oklahoma City through the Texas panhandle, over the long stretches of desert through New Mexico and Arizona, and into California at around Barstow, where it snakes its way through the orange groves of southern California until it ends at the Santa Monica pier.
Route 66 was the great trail that brought people west. Black Americans fled the nightmarish Jim Crow south; poverty-stricken Dust Bowl families set out to find work on California’s farms; and after World War II young soldiers and their wives, bolstered by the GI Bill and national optimism, packed up their infant boomers and went looking for housing and employment. In the more prosperous years that followed, people with cars and leisure time and a decent income took family vacations to see more of what this country had to offer than they could find in their hometowns.
What a great time it was for travelers back then. They could start their day with a heap of flapjacks, eggs, bacon, and hash browns for about a buck, washed down with a piping hot mug of coffee brought to their table by a smiling diner waitress. Then they would spend the day on the road, stopping in each small town to buy local crafts or let their kids play on the kitschy amusements set up as lures in front of each store. Take your photo next to a giant Paul Bunyan statue! Ride on a big blue cement whale! See the inside of a totem pole! At the end of the day, hungry and tired, they would pull into a truck stop and fill their stomachs with flame-cooked burgers, fried chicken, and milkshakes or ice-cold Coca-Colas, followed by enormous slabs of berry pie heaped with fresh whipped cream. Another hour or two of driving straight west into some of the most glorious sunsets they’d ever been lucky enough to see, and it was time to stop for some very sound sleep at one of the ubiquitous, neon-lit drive-up motor courts that had popped up along the road.
Unfortunately, the quaint, friendly cross-country stretch that was Route 66 suffered a terrible blow in the 1960s and 1970s, when the 42,000-mile national interstate highway system was built. Interstates 55, 44, 40, and 15 would essentially parallel Route 66 but bypass all of the small towns that had grown up along the route. Slowly, those towns withered and died as the “big slab” (as many called the interstate) promised travelers the ability to traverse great distances in far less time. Chain motels, chain restaurants, and chain gas stations replaced the colorful lodging and eateries along the route. People lost their livelihoods and moved away from their homes. In 1984, the last bit of Route 66 was replaced near Williams, Arizona. An era had ended.
Fortunately, some individuals, organizations, and state legislatures have stepped up in recent years, restoring old buildings and maintaining sections of the old road. Nostalgia-seekers and people with time on their hands are heading back down Route 66. There are parts of the road that are long gone, forcing travelers to hop on the freeway for miles at a time, especially in New Mexico and Arizona. But stretches of the old road do remain, and there are refurbished diners, gas stations, motels, and roadside attractions – not to mention museums – to be enjoyed. I highly recommend it. It’s almost as much fun as entomology.
Before we headed out on our own Mother Road adventure, my guitarist friend and bandmate Dina M. – a transplanted New Yorker – told us that she had purloined a piece of petrified wood from the Petrified Forest at least a decade earlier when she had moved out to California. In the Petrified Forest, it is absolutely illegal to remove anything because of the numerous ongoing scientific experiments that are conducted on the fossils there. Wood becomes petrified when mineral matter seeps into buried trees and, over the course of millions of years, eventually replaces all the organic matter, turning the wood into a fossilized stone. That wood/stone can reveal an entire geologic record about the passage of time.
So, consumed with guilt, Dina asked us to do her the favor of bringing the wood back to its home so she could be relieved of the crime and the emotional burden once and for all. We agreed, and we brought that little rock (it couldn’t have been more than 6 inches in diameter; we called it “Little Dino”) with us from California all the way to Kentucky and then back west as we meandered along the length of Route 66. It was 50 miles off the route and out of our way to go into the Petrified Forest, but well worth the detour – for Dina’s sake, for Little Dino’s sake, and also for our own amusement, edification, and overall sense of self-congratulation.
The petrified wood in this forest can be 225million years old, and signs about the federal penalties attached to removing the wood were everywhere. Although we were bringing contraband into, not out of, the place, I remember sweating like a drug dealer when we passed through the entrance gate and had to undergo the ranger’s interrogation about what we had in the car. Then, once into the park, we could find only groups of large rocks that completely dwarfed Little Dino, and he was going to look supremely out of place. But we had no choice. Holding the contraband clandestinely in the inside of my jacket, I awkwardly tossed it a full 3 inches and it landed among its new boulder family, where I presume it lies to this day.
This whole caper is caught on film, thanks to Julie’s persistent cinematography. The link to the 4-minute clip is below:
For the “CBS Morning Show” story, the reporter met with a park ranger who displayed his collection of remorseful letters written by petrified wood thieves – many of them children. These people, like Dina, had carried guilt around with them for years, and their letters accompanied the pieces of wood they were finally returning. (You know, the postage on some of those boulders must have been astronomical!) As I watched, I began to get miffed. I thought that I should have been interviewed. After all, the show likes to feature people who do extraordinary things, but instead the story was showcasing the criminals who had taken petrified wood out of the park – not heroes like me who had gone out of their way, nearly 1,000 miles from home, just to bring back a 6-inch rock.
My attention was starting to drift when, at the end of the story, the reporter casually mentioned that the rocks that are sent back to the park are simply stored away because they cannot actually be put back. When I heard that, I snapped quickly to attention. The ranger explained that no rocks can be introduced back into the area because the scientists conducting their careful studies could inadvertently pick up something that had no reason to be there and the study results would all be totally botched.
Uh-oh. Oh, no. Now we’ve got to go baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!