A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 2
by Jake Rohrer, May 6, 2011
Your life story would not make a good book. So don't even try. — Fran Lebowitz
The whole time I was growing up, I never met another kid whose name was Jake. Today I understand it is one of the most popular boy's names out there. I used to find it sometimes embarrassing because of its hillbilly/cowboy connection. Now the biggest grossing film or all time has a hero named Jake. Very cool for all the Jakes out there. My grandfather, a Missouri farmer all of his life, was Jacob, known as Jake, and I was named for him, but not on my birth certificate. I guess Mom and Dad wanted something a little more upscale, and I was christened James, but never knew that name until I had to use it on legal documents. I was baptized James when I was about 8 or 9, and remember my disappointment when nothing of spiritual significance happened following this ceremony and ordeal. It wasn't until I first experimented with LSD that I experienced such a thing. But that's a few chapters down the road, if only a couple of months on the life calendar.
I came from fine, sturdy American stock, Mom and Dad. As a kid, growing up, I always thought of them as the best there could be and nothing ever happened that changed my mind. Dad was a Missouri farm boy with a dozen brothers and sisters while Mom was a California girl from a small, quiet family in Northern California. Both were born in 1914 and never let the great depression get the better of them. They had nothing to lose, but learned from it the value of hard work and a dollar. Their values would assimilate in me as much as they could, but ours was a generation and circumstance far from their own. We were spoiled by over-caring; we never knew hunger, cold or going without. Instead we were blanketed with love and security and all the child-crap the markets could bring to bear, protected by parents who had known hardship and were determined that their children would not. I would later spoil my own children in a similar manner. American ethic and culture sold this idea to the white middle classes, kids come first. In later years Dad would instill in me a work ethic similar to his own, while Mom would push her children to be industrious and take their education as a serious matter.
Missouri was hot in the summertime, cold in winter and farm work held no appeal for Dad. As soon as he graduated from high school, he headed for California where in the teeth of the depression he first worked assembling tractors for a dollar a day. At the same time, Mom headed to San Francisco from Fort Bragg where she learned the finer points of being a secretary. Dad would somehow migrate to dry cleaning and eventually own the business before becoming a salesman for the Ford dealer in Albany. Mom worked for business people where her shorthand and accounting skills were especially prized. They were seemingly made for each other, both good looking and handsome, industrious, from a common background, sharing social values and work ethic, neither belonging to a church. Soon enough, fate would find Howard and Louise occupants of the same apartment building in Oakland, leading to their marriage in 1938.
Which led to me in August of 1943, arriving right in the middle of World War II. My sister preceded me in January of 1942 and more brothers would follow in 1945 and 1951. Howard was exempted from military service because of vision deficits and was further exempted on arrival of his dependents. Learning the automobile business he soon started his own, buying and selling used cars, a great business to be in during the war years because there was no such thing as new cars, the auto manufacturers instead building tanks and jeeps and otherwise supporting the war effort. Howard was a charismatic salesman with a sharp eye for making money and he made more than just a living. He invested in real estate and became modestly wealthy for the time. Perhaps extraordinarily so for a thinly educated Missouri farm boy from the Ozarks whose sun-darkened skin had earned him the denigrating and racist grade-school nickname, “Nig,” and later, “Swampy,” for the ease with which he could make his way through the woods and rivers.
* * *
Mom and Dad built their dream home in Kensington, an unincorporated and largely white East Bay community across the bay from San Francisco, bordered on the south by Berkeley, on the north by El Cerrito, on the west by Albany and on the east by regional park lands. Their home cost almost fifty thousand dollars, a lot of money at the time, and it created some envy from his older brothers who had stayed behind, struggling to make ends meet in Missouri. The oldest brother, Jason, and the youngest, Quentin, along with an older sister, Zelma, would come to California and work for Howard in his automobile business. Schooled through grade 8 in a one-room country school house, Howard would at different times have his brother Jason and sister Zelma as his teachers, a thought that always resonated with me—how totally cool it would be to have my sister as my teacher! Just think of what I could get away with!
I cannot imagine a more exciting place for a kid to grow up than our Kensington home. It had close to an acre of land with climbing trees and frog ponds and its own spring. Sometimes in winter the lower portion would flood, providing a tree lined lake for us to pole our homemade rafts around in. Tree forts, underground forts, hiding places and rope swings would all be part of the landscape. The wonder of the natural world was all around us, deer, raccoons, opossum and the like joining the birds, frogs, snakes, lizards, minnows and creatures of the ponds. Once, just over the hill in the park lands, I saw a fox and even heard tales of nearby mountain lions. We could walk to school, just across the street and up the hill, which in later years would provide me with basketball courts and a baseball diamond. We picked wild blackberries by the basketful and grandma would bake us wonderfully delicious tarts and pies. Neighborhood friends were abundant, and together we did all the things that kids do. This was indeed a golden environment for kids to grow up in. Together with the love of my parents, I think I was the most fortunate of sons.
We always had pets and animals, lizards, flying squirrels, tarantulas, horned toads and snakes to name some. My sister accumulated an aviary of parakeets. Of course cats and Poncho the dog, who had status as a family member. From a second grade reader, one of the first books ever to captivate me, I felt a close bond with the young boy who was the lead character and who wore bib overalls and had a pet crow. One day in a pet shop I discovered a crow and talked Mom into buying him for me. I named him Jamie after the crow in the book and tamed him to sit on my shoulder and eat from my hand. Together we won the “Most Unique Pet” trophy at the Live Oak pet show in Berkeley. Accepting the trophy on stage with Jamie on my shoulder, he shat a copious crow turd that ran down my back. We had our picture in the newspaper, looking toward the camera so the turd wouldn't show. From a visit to Missouri, we brought back a box of land turtles, “terrapins,” that would live in the backyard for years to come. Learning the hard way about alligator lizards, I one day pounced on a big one I caught crossing the road. The lizard latched onto a finger, causing a jagged wound and lots of bleeding, and it quickly became clear to me why they called this particular species of lizard, “alligator.”
Across the street was the community church, a place where I never felt at ease except for one period when Louise taught Sunday School and I learned about Moses. Other than that, my brother and I refused to attend any of the classes set out for us, even though we had been appropriately dressed and deposited. Howard told me of a Sunday morning I came running down the driveway, followed by my brother, and when he asked why we weren't in church, I exclaimed, “...Bobby escaped!” as though trying to aid in his capture but out ahead of the quarry in the chase. Howard himself would have nothing to do with church unless maybe he were to attend a wed-ding. Looking back on it, I felt about as foreign and out of my element in church as I did in the U.S. District courtroom, as though the “elders” held a similar view of me.
* * *
“Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar” — boogie woogie piano song from 1940 (Don Raye & Ray McKinley)
Music would start to come into my life, first fueled by a friend of Dad's, Joe Gaeta, who could play hot shit boogie-woogie piano, the real deal. Mom, too, was musically inclined and played a skilled piano, but not like Joe. He was in a class schooled by the likes of Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Freddy Slack, some of the greatest of all time. On those occasions when the families got together at our house, Joe would play and I would be swept up in the energetic rhythms, the left hand triplets creating a driving beat against the right hand trills and repeating hot licks. Boogie-woogie piano touched something deep inside of me and became for me a goal and musical destination. I thought being left handed would give me an advantage because boogie-woogie was anchored by strong left hand rhythms and patterns.
Sensing this, mom started me on piano lessons where a graceless and stern old woman demanded that I learn to read music and memorize my scales, teaching insipid songs and pasting little colored stars into my music book when I managed to learn something. I even had to memorize and play “The Big Brown Bear” at a recital. I hated it, and I still remember some asshole out in the audience who snickered when I began my piece, but I would be later thankful for at least this rudimentary introduction to formal music. As soon as I could muster the will to stand up to my mother's urging that I continue, I quit, but not before I had memorized the scales in all of the keys.
A couple of years later, Louise learned of Chuck Dutton who had a piano studio on University Avenue in Berkeley and taught his students to play by ear, teaching boogie-woogie and popular music of the time. I took less than a dozen lessons from him, but learned extraordinary chords, 12-bar blues, hot licks and the way things went together. He showed me how to play “Bumble Bee Boogie” all the way through.
Before Elvis and the other great rock and roll pioneers of the 1950's, there was for me Bill Haley & the Comets. His music had all the energy and urgency I found in boogie-woogie and one of the leading questions of the day for me and my friends was, “...is Bill Haley a colored man?” He of course was not, but his music so stood out from what else was offered to a white audience in 1954 we thought he may have been. I would see Bill Haley and his fine, tight band some 20 years later in a rock & roll revival show at the Oakland Coliseum, where they closed the show and blew everyone else off the stage. Even back in the fifties, Bill Haley and the Comets may have been the first band to cause actual riots by an audience simply over-amped into rebellion, unable to contain the energy of the music.
My sister, two grades ahead of me in school, became my musical mentor who would introduce me to the music that she and her friends were drawn to, often inviting me to hang around with them, learning what was cool and what was crap. Most of what was cool was black music, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, even some jazz, and performers like Sarah Vaughn and Nina Simone. Ray Charles had just arrived. The Bay Area, Oakland in particular, had a rich heritage of black performers, many unknown outside of their own communities. A show business idiom of the time was: “Think you're good? Play Oakland,” a genuine dare if you were a performer. Our radio station was Oakland's KWBR, broadcasting the music of the best black performers of the day, hosted by Big Don Barksdale and Bouncin' Bill Doubleday. Our record store was Reid's Records on Sacramento Street in Berkeley where they had an impressive inventory of our favorite black performers and we bought 78 rpm records, soon to be replaced by 45s and 33-1/3 rpm albums.
One day when I was about 12, I called the station and talked directly with Bouncin' Bill and made my first dedication: the Danelleers would sing, “One Summer Night” from Jake to Patti. Patti lived at the Russian River and wouldn't hear my dedication, but I didn't care. It was the testimony and heart that mattered. I could tell her about it the next time I would see her. Ten minutes later, there it was on the radio with my voice and everything. A day or two later I won the “Mystery Group” contest, correctly identifying the performing group of a brand new, soon to be released record and was rewarded with a free record certificate from Reid's Records.
Jimmy Reed became one of my favorite performers and I actually spent part of an evening with him when my sister and her friends took me along with them to see Jimmy and several other Oakland-based rhythm and blues performers at Sweet's Ballroom in downtown Oakland. He was out in the audience before his own performance, loaded but in control. I don't remember how I introduced myself, but he recognized me as a true fan, befriending me and taking me out to the parking lot to see his brand new 1957 Mercury, a hardtop with bright, shinning chrome standing out against a two-tone robin's-egg blue and midnight blue paint job. He would occasionally swig from a bottle in his pocket and at one point we even peed together, side by side, at the men's room urinals. Imagine that! Standing there, peeing alongside Jimmy Reed! I didn't even peek at his pecker. Then we stood together out in front of the stage as Johnny Fuller and his band played, followed by Jimmy McCracklin's band, Jimmy treating me like I was family. It wasn't a seated concert with reserved seating or anything like that; we were standing on the dance floor. There was guitar player whose name I don't remember who backed up the other bands and would play with Jimmy when he performed. “Tha's one guitar-playin' som'bitch!” said Jimmy.
Another evening found me with a neighborhood friend, huddled around the radio in my bedroom listening to the white pop radio station out of San Francisco, KOBY. This game was called “hit or miss” and the disc jockey was soliciting opinion on a brand new record which he then plays on the air. My friend, Ron, makes the call. He tells the DJ, “...never play that fucking piece of shit ever again or we might blow up the station.” The phone is between our heads and I'm listening in. There is a brief period of silence followed by a stern, business like voice that says, “...operator, you may trace this call.” Ron slams the receiver down, ashen faced. Two scared, guilt ridden boys spend the rest of the night waiting for the FBI to knock on the door.
* * *
Unbelievably, the FBI did come looking for me a couple of years later when I was a freshman in high school. The hall monitor brought the pink slip into my English class, summoning me to the dean's office. The secretary ushered me into the inner sanctum where two stern looking men in suits and hats sat opposite the boy's dean, Richard Lovett. He stood from behind his desk, saying, “...Jake, I want to introduce you to so-and-so and so-and-so. They're Special Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and they want to talk to you about this,” and he pointed to some paper scraps on his desk. I leaned in and took a look. Oh, no! Where did they get it? There on the desk was a facsimile of a twenty dollar bill I had made on a copy machine at Dad's office. The paper had a brownish hue and was printed on one side only. Cut into the oval normally occupied by Andrew Jackson was the facial image of my best friend from one of those 25-cent arcade instant-photo booths. He had both fists raised at eye level, middle fingers extended in a double-barreled bird (perch!), accompanied by the silliest, goofiest and funniest expression imaginable. Dave is probably the funniest guy I ever knew.
The dean looked at the bogus bill and couldn't contain his mirth, letting out a chuckle he discreetly tried to smother. The agents weren't amused. They wanted to know how many of these I had made and let me know in no uncertain terms that printing or duplicating U.S. Currency was a serious offense.
The idea that this cartoon bill was remotely passable as real, or that a couple of 14 year-old kids having fun with a thermofax machine could endanger our country, was and is ludicrous. That two Special Agents from the FBI apparently had nothing more pressing to occupy their energies boggles the mind. Why weren't they out there chasing commies? Okay. I promised I wouldn't do it again, but they wouldn't tell me who gave them the evidence or told them my name. Only a freshman in high school, and already someone had snitched me off to the feds. Very early on I had reason to look askance at Federal authority.
My first actual “arrest” occurred when I was no more than 8 years old. Together with my brother and a couple of neighborhood kids, we went to explore an old deserted homestead in the hills beyond the school. One of the kids, who was sort of goofy anyway, had the nickname, “Bubblegum.” He cut through someone's property on his way to join us and when the resident, a woman, took him to task for trespassing, he apparently told her he had matches and would burn her house down, or something along those lines. The cop arrived at the old homestead and put us into the cop car, confiscating the matches. He wouldn't say a word, just posing his dour cop authority. After we'd driven several blocks, in my mind on the way to jail, near to tears, I asked him if we could tell our mother where he was taking us. He still wouldn't answer, but then drove us home and let us go.
Why he had to be an asshole about this, I don't know. He could have smiled and explained the wrongfulness of threatening to burn down a home (in which only one of us was complicit) or taught us about the dangers of playing with matches (which we really hadn't), or some sort of lesson we could have respected, along with cops in general. Instead he chose to be an asshole, terrorizing 7 and 8 year-old kids, flaunting his stern authority and making all cops who came after him have to prove them-selves otherwise.
* * *
Before there was music, before Bill Haley, The Cadillacs or the Penguins, back in the days of the Hit Parade and Lucky Lager Dance Time, there was a radio program called “The Red Blanchard Show.” Red was our kind of guy, a little bit crazy. He was responsible for coining the word “zorch,” among others, and it always seemed to me that he walked right out of the classic early pages of Mad Magazine. I thought that zorch was somehow related to the color of his flaming red hair, but Red never explained it. Things were just, “...zorch, man.” His show was broadcast live from the Palace Hotel in San Francisco (Red called it “The Cow Palace Hotel”) and when they could, Howard and Louise would take us to be part of the live broadcast studio audience (Red always said, “vast studio radiance”). There was a live organist whose name was Floyd Wright (“Frank Lloyd Wright,” said Red) and he would play Red's theme song (“The Organ Grinder's Swing”). Then Red would start his show, telling crazy stories with an array of voices and characters (“Captain Hideous” was my favorite), using his own sound effects and noise makers, frantically dashing around the studio from one mic to another with wild, uncontrolled antics, knocking over chairs and props with loud crashes. Sometimes he would be in the chair when it toppled, splaying out onto the floor on his back where he would lie for a moment looking dazed before spryly jumping to his feet, totally cool and in charge, so terrifically zorch. Red was of course playing to his physical audience as much as the broadcast audience.
One sponsor of the Red Blanchard Show was Wild Root Cream Oil, a thick, heavily perfumed hair tonic, perhaps better suited for use in the differential of your car. Red would even sing the jingle now and then, backed by the organist, (“...get Wild Root Cream Oil Charrrrrly. It keeps your hair in style!”) Every night a bottle of Wild Root was awarded to the member of the audience with the messiest, most awful hair. Howard would allow us to mess up his hair with the old “Burns thrust,” a 3-fingered in and out stab into the scalp, creating a stringy, matted waterfall on his forehead and leaving the rest of his hair sticking up in odd places. Then he'd walk into the studio in his immaculate business suit, starched shirt and tie, the best of sports, getting into the swing of things for his kids. Another bottle of Wild Root would be awarded to the winner of the alphabet contest: Red would walk around the audience with his microphone asking for the names of things not contained in Wildroot Cream Oil that started with the letter of the night. This night the letter was “w” and I thought I might win the prize with “witches,” but the guy who said, “...wabbits” got the bottle of grease.
Then Red might take a break from his frantic running around and sit at the microphone, telling the radio listeners at home that they must now turn their radios up very, very loud because he was going to be talking in a very quiet and soft voice which would slowly tail off...just long enough for Red to cover the microphone with the bell of a New Year's Eve party horn and blow it as loud as he could. Good ol' Red. We rolled in the aisles, wondering how many radio speakers he had just blown to smithereens. Red was a wonderfully patient and endearing celebrity, hanging out in the lobby with his fans after the show, signing autographs and just talking to people one on one, kids as well as adults. Most people think Don Sherwood was the king of early Bay Area radio personalities, but for me it will always be Red Blanchard.
* * *
With the discovery of music, came the discovery of girls. Sponsored by the school, Carol Cayley, a mean bitch of a woman, held her social dancing classes at the church and community center across the street from our house. My friends and I would put on our best clothes and line the walls as Carol demonstrated the the steps for the fox trot, the waltz and some be-bob steps for the faster tempos. Etiquette and manners were also a part of the classes. Anyone who fucked up, and we did a lot of that, got yelled at in her harshest and most unforgiving tone, a shameful public embarrassment.
Most times our dancing partners were selected for us, a matter of where you physically happened to be, and changed from dance to dance. Once in a while the boys had opportunity to select a girl and then the girls had a chance to select a boy. It was not a matter of casual asking. Proper invitation and acceptance were required, the extending and taking of the offered hand, returning your partner to her seat when the dance ended, and with a slight bow, thanking her before returning to your side of the room. One of my friends once asked me, “...you ever get one that stunk?”
The classes were well attended and required two nights weekly to accommodate everyone who wanted to learn social dancing. To my dismay, the girl I had my eye on was in the Wednesday class while I was in the Tuesday class. But these were things we didn't acknowledge out loud at age eleven. Love's first glow was kept largely secret. Though we didn't share the same dance class, we soon attended the same birthday party, hosted by one of my neighborhood friends where spin the bottle was played. I was sure I caused it to happen by my fervent wishing, or maybe there was an intervention by a cupid angel. When it came her turn, she delicately spun the bottle that turned its several revolutions before coming to rest, pointing right at me! OMG!
To execute the kiss we were allowed to excuse our-selves from the party room to the privacy of the parlor, to where we walked on a cloud, hand in hand. Then, turning to her, I placed my hands gently at her waist and gazed into her wondrous, inviting eyes...and planted my first and best kiss firmly on her cheek. Music played and a warm rush of emotion flowed through me like an involuntary spasm. The immediate stirring in my groin, the unbidden turning of the worm, surprised and amazed me, and I think I knew from that moment on I would love and adore women for the rest of my life. Our romance was something even we didn't speak to each other about. All we had to do was look at one another and hearts would beat faster.
On Valentine’s Day the class postman brought me a valentine from her that invited me to hold her close and kiss her again. I was shaken by her forwardness, but totally pleased. She had more balls than I did. Nearly as pleasing as anything else, she could play baseball, too, really well for a girl. We once went on a formal date with my best friend and hers. We took the number 7 bus into Berkeley and sat side by side at the United Artist Theater and watched the movie, “Forbidden Planet,” then had ice cream sodas at Edy's. We would end up dancing together at other parties and playing baseball together at the school playground, sometimes having lunch together, and that was the sum of our romance. At the end of the school year we drifted apart, hardly acknowledging one another when we moved to junior high school the next fall.
They say, though, that love springs eternal. All the other women who would one day find a place in my heart would have to share it with Kathy.