A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 9
by Jake Rohrer, June 29, 2011
“I'm gonna buy a blow-up girl with pretty hair and eyes, / One that's happy just with me and don't want other guys / If she becomes dissatisfied and wants to cry and pout, / I'll unscrew her blow-up valve, let her air all run out / I'm gonna buy a blow-up girl...”
— Max Halsey,“Blow-up Girl”
The person who would most connect me to the memory of my father and his generation was Max Halsey. For at least one chapter of his lifetime Max worked in the automobile business, oftentimes for my father. A genuine soldier of fortune, he came out of the Pacific Northwest as a young man, a stow-away on freight trains into the big cities of Portland and San Francisco. A few years younger than my father, he would learn the same lessons while living though the same times, confronting the Great Depression, World War II, and the Eisenhower years. He had been through two or three wives before becoming my brother's and my close friend and confidant. The Halsey method of divorce was simple, “…here, you can have it all,” and down the road he'd go. His presence in our lives wasn't a replacement for our father, but he was always a reminder, a similar background and outlook. His skills were many, though foremost he could operate a bulldozer like few others. He was also a pilot and, later, a sailor, who with the final love of his life, Maureen, would circumnavigate the globe in a 42-foot Trimaran with only compass and sextant to guide them. He somehow made life work with just a stipend of several hundred dollars monthly from a disability grant due to a head injury suffered during his military service. He would never accumulate comfortable wealth during a lifetime of adventure, but he had the ability to make ends meet through sheer determination and talent. Tough as leather with balls of iron, he had as much heart and courage as anyone I've met before or since. All the more, he had a wonderful self deprecating sense of humor and women seemed to adore him. Even into his seventies, he had a warm smile, a lean and strong body and a confident manner. He loved music and could play a decent harmonica, sing off-key and strum a guitar. Not a bad poet, either, in a backwoods sort of way.
Max had a fabulous library of personal adventure stories and he was a fine storyteller as well. He was at all times during his life a treasure hunter and fortune seeker. He told me of his brief foray into gold mining when he became a partner with a few others in a mine in California's Sierra foothills. They soon discovered a rich and promising vein of gold, but when the claim was filed he found that his partners left his name off the claim register, effectively muscling him out. Max assembled several cases of dynamite and forever blew the mine shut, a fitting close to the partnership. He told me tales of afterward driving around the Oakland hills in a convertible with some left over explosives, lighting sticks of dynamite and throwing them out of the car like they were firecrackers.
* * *
What follows is Max's most astonishing treasure story, in his own words as told to his daughter, Cheryl. I find his truth in every word:
From the time I was a young boy, I would experience episodes I can only explain as psychic phenomenon. Each time I experienced these things, I felt the presence of a strange force around me, like a separate consciousness that I couldn't quite grasp or hold onto. It was never frightening or disagreeable, more like a feeling of assurance, that everything was okay.
It was 1960 and I was working for the Reynold C. Johnson Company in San Francisco as a commissioned salesman, selling Volkswagens. Sales were slow and I was earning practically no money at all. At lunchtime I declined an offer to go to lunch with several of the employees. I had only enough money for bridge toll to get back to the East Bay where I lived. It was one of the lowest psychological points of my life. I got in my car and drove aimlessly, ending up at Fisherman's Wharf. I parked the car and sat looking across the bay at Alcatraz and I remember asking myself, “what kind of man am I who would let himself get so far down?” A recent divorce had left me broke and feeling a certain amount of guilt. I had borrowed money from dear friends that should have been repaid long ago. My life seemed to be in shambles.
It was while I was in this state of mind that I suddenly found my attention drawn to the silhouette of an old Victorian house on the top of a hill not far away. It seemed to stand alone as though all the others around it had gone away. As I later recalled this moment, there is no doubt in my mind that some other unexplainable force had taken control of my consciousness. I no longer thought of my despair, only about going to this old house.
I began to drive in the general direction, gradually getting closer as it once again came into view. In a few minutes I was parked on Lombard Street in front of this stately old deserted mansion. It was surrounded by a high ornamental iron fence, the front almost hidden by overgrown shrubbery. The grass was tall and it was obvious that no one had lived there for a long time. I looked around and managed to climb the fence unobserved. Hidden within, I remembered exploring deserted homesteads as a small boy in the country, thinking that I could feel the spirits of the people who had lived there.
I realized later that I had undertaken a systematic search of the entire property, the old house, servant's quarters, the carriage house and a small garden house. I had no conscious thoughts of searching and if someone had asked, I would have told them that I was just killing time, exploring this old relic of a time gone by. I estimate I had been there about two hours and was just about to leave when I noticed some small steps at the back of the house, leading to a door under the house. I went directly to the door and found that it opened into a furnace room. Without any hesitation, I walked across the room and put my finger in a small hole in the wall and gave it a pull. A door opened in the wall revealing an old iron safe. The safe door was closed and I remember thinking, “wouldn't it be fun if I could just spin this dial and open this thing!” My hand reached for the dial but some kind of alarm had gone off in my mind and my hand froze in mid-air. I must not touch that dial! Slowly my hand reached for the lever as though guided by some other force and with a slight pull the door swung open.
The first thing that caught my attention was several envelopes, each containing a stack of bills, more money than I had seen in a long time. At this point, I knew I was surrounded by some extraordinary force. I could smell it, hear it, feel it. In a way I was it. My knees grew weak. I reached in and got the envelopes, stuffing them in my pockets. “My God!” I thought. “What am I doing? This isn't mine!” I could see the headlines, MAX HALSEY CAUGHT BY POLICE, ROLLING A SAFE IN SAN FRANCISCO.
There were other things in the safe, but I could only think to get out. I jumped the fence with the envelopes in my pocket and drove away. Back at my apartment in the East Bay, I found I had over $5,000 in old silver certificates in wrappers dated 1932. I knew my story would be too incredible to believe, so I enlisted a close friend, Dick Lloyd, to accompany me back to the house. With him as my witness, I removed everything else from the safe, a collection of gold coins, a large collection of foreign coins, two big diamonds set in rings, gold nuggets and several other pieces of valuable jewelry.
Finding the money was an extraordinary thing, but nothing compared to this strange energy field I felt around me. It was there for days, gradually growing weaker until it was gone. It stays very vivid in my memory and in my mind I'll always know that psychic phenomenon and separate realities are there and a part of our lives. When I returned to the house 10 days later, it had been torn down and there was only a vacant lot.
* * *
“Hardly been the time I ever had a woman, didn't change on me like a hurricane comin' / Feelin' kinda tattered and a little bit worn, gotta find me some shelter from the storm
— Max Halsey, “Blow-up Girl”
In all, Max's treasure amounted to over $12,000, a lot of money in 1960. He gave my Dad one of the diamond rings from the safe. Both the gold setting and the cut of the diamond are old fashioned, from earlier times. I am sure Dad was one of the dear friends to whom Max owed money. I copped the ring from Dad for my high school senior ball and never gave it back, somehow cool with him. It's on my finger to this day. The diamond is over three carats and one jeweler some 25 years ago valued it at about $3,500. To Max's friends on the Big Island who've heard the tale, I'm known as “...the man with the ring.”
With all of his debts paid and cash in his pocket, Max purchased a 1949 Stinson Voyager, a single engine, canvass covered, 4-passenger airplane, known as a “tail-dragger.” In December of 1961, together with my brother, Robbin, Dad and Max, we flew from the Bay Area to Cabo San Lucas, then only a dusty little fishing village, stopping all along the Baja peninsula, fishing, refueling and adventuring. We sometimes had to circle a crude dirt landing strip while an attendant chased the pigs off the runway. At one point, cruising at 7,500 feet, Max asked Dad to take the controls so he could rest a moment. A few minutes later, Max gazing off at the mountains, I saw that Dad had nodded off and the plane was in a lazy tilt, headed off course. Wake up, Howard! We arrived at the border after closing time and didn't know we were supposed to call the feds to come inspect us before leaving the area. Instead we went into town and when we came back the next morning, they had impounded our airplane, as though they had accurately looked into the future and saw a gang of smugglers. The feds were stern, angry and controlling, but Max put on his charm and was able to convince them they were dealing with dummies rather than border runners and they relented, returning our airplane.
Max later purchased a new Lincoln Continental and with a new wife, Margie, traveled around the country. Arriving in Florida, they went into a bar to have a drink, only to be entrapped in a spurious scam perpetrated by lowlife criminals who preyed on out-of- state tourists, especially targeting those who arrived in expensive cars. Max ordered a drink and the bartender barked, “...no more for him. He's had enough!” Max replied, “...man, I just walked in here. You don't know me from Adam.” Then someone grabbed him from behind. Max told me, “…I jerked loose, turned around and dropped him,” whereupon he was promptly set on by several others who beat him savagely, breaking his nose, another holding Margie back, while the sheriff conveniently arrived as though on cue. He was stuffed into a filthy jail cell and left for 24 hours, his broken nose caked and clogged with blood. He had to use water from the toilet to clean his bloody face and as a source of drinking water. Margie managed bail the following day and got him to a doctor. Later that night at the motel there came a man claiming to be the bar owner with a bill for several hundred dollars for damages caused by the melee. He was accompanied by the sheriff who told them the bill had to be paid or he would put Max back in jail. Margie promised to go to the bank in the morning, but the minute they left, Max and Margie were in the Lincoln, heading north, forsaking the bail bond. “I had enough of Florida to last me a lifetime,” said Max. Returning to California, the well insured Lincoln, with a loan against it exceeding its value, had a parking brake failure at an overlook, careening off into a canyon, irrecoverable. Max had had enough of Lincolns as well.
Following Dad's death, Max established his own used car business in Auburn, above Sacramento. His slogan was, “We Trade for Most Anything,” and he often came to Albany to buy used cars from me. Our haggling over the wholesale value of a car was always comic and a test of wills, both knowing and appreciating the bullshit of the other: “…I think the trans (transmission) is a little weak on that Skylark, Jake, and it doesn't have wind (air conditioning). Maybe six-bits (75 dollars) back (less than wholesale Blue Book) would be a price I could live with.” And back and forth. His business was doing well and he and Margie prospered. Then two serious heart attacks derailed Max and the business. Always a smoker whose 2-martini lunches might include a steak sandwich, he had become a little overweight and exercised little if at all. A 19 year-old Robbin, trim and muscular, would tease him, calling him the “jellyfish.” Max sold the business and moved into the gold country above Auburn where he would spend time recuperating from his heart troubles, then again call upon his skills with a bulldozer to make a living, cutting roads into deep forest for the timber industry.
Robbin visited one day, inviting Max to smoke a joint. Margie was nervous, and to some extent so was Max. Like most of their generation, they were inundated with “Reefer Madness” propaganda. Marijuana was to them a foreign substance, as dangerous as heroin. “Are you sure?” Max asked Robbin. Margie fretted and remained dead set against Max even trying it. Robbin stuck a joint in Max's mouth and turned to Margie as he struck a match, “...he'll never be the same, ever again.”
* * *
“Seems to me things just ain't right, when your lady leaves in the middle of the night, / You find yourself just standin' there, with your heart all broke and your pockets bare, / I'm gonna buy a blow-up girl…”
— Max Halsey, “Blow-up Girl”
Though he'd still be Max, he wouldn't be the same. Marijuana for Max was an epiphany, all of a sudden seeming to understand that much of what he believed in up to that point of his life was simply red, white and blue American bullshit. He gave up drinking martinis and eating rich foods, and become lean and strong again, forsaking the American dream that he now understood was really for him a trap. He would adopt many aspects of emerging lifestyles, at 50 becoming something closer to an aging hippie, although still and always a treasure hunter.
Sadly, it took decades before he finally kicked the cigarette habit, the ravages of which would contribute in no small way to his demise. I had quit for a couple of years and I was always trying to get Max to quit, too. Once, working together with shovels under a hot sun, Max pulled a pack of smokes out of his pocket and stomped them into the ground, “Who needs these goddam things?” he roared. Three days later, at home pulling off his work boots, a pack of camels popped out of the boot, turning several revolutions in the air before hitting ground. Flat busted, an embarrassed Max asked, “...now where the hell did those come from?” Kneeling to clean a trout in a swirling eddy one day, a cigarette filter came floating in on the current and circled around in front of me. I knew it belonged to Max. Margie smoked filtered cigarettes, and when Max would bum one he'd tear the filter off before lighting up. I called up the river, “Halsey, you asshole, are you smoking again?” “Not me, brother,” came a guilty reply. In later years he would cross an entire ocean in a sail boat, purposely starting the voyage without any tobacco. Even so, cigarettes would be his first purchase when he hit dry land. I think anyone who wants to talk about addicting drugs should start with nicotine, nay-saying tobacco executives notwithstanding.
With what capital he had, Max bought a motor home, not yet called an RV. This suited his gypsy wanderlust. He and Margie traveled around the country, existing mostly on his monthly disability grant. If Max was disabled, it was never apparent to me. Smuggling marijuana seemed like a good way to make a little money, and somewhere he heard that it was free and readily available near Guthrie Corners, Iowa, where the government during World War II had raised hemp for making rope. It still grew wild in the fields and alongside the highways. In the dark of night, Max harvested some 300 pounds of wild hemp and brought it back to California, where he discovered its potency wasn't enough to even qualify as “Gentle Ben,” a term (from a one-time TV series) for weak and benign pot. I don't think it sold for enough to cover expenses.
Undaunted, Max and an acquaintance from the gold country, a tough old redneck logger, traveled to Arkansas and planted a crop in some remote lowland the logger had access to. Before it was mature enough to harvest, a knock came at the cabin door one night. A couple of back country yokels with shotguns who looked like they were right out of the film “Deliverance,” told Max and the logger that they knew what they were up to and would be back in the morning for their share. They pulled the plants and were gone before the sun came up.
Always clever with his hands, Max built a fiberglass compartment hidden in the undercarriage
of the motor home and he went into Mexico, buying and smuggling enough quality marijuana to make a few thousand dollars a trip. At the border he and Margie appeared to be a retired couple on vacation, and they were never challenged. Max would put on his most conservative appearance and made sure the American flag decals were prominent in the front windows of the motor home. This was at a time before drug-sniffing dogs became the norm.
Running the border, though, was dangerous and stressful. They took some time off and traveled around the Pacific Northwest, back to where Max had history and family. Soon enough, he fell in with some young hippie-types, and they planted over an acre of marijuana on a remote property outside of Orofino, Idaho. At Max's invitation, I brought my family in our VW camper to Idaho. We hooked up with Max and Margie in Orofino, and with Max's sister and her husband, Boyd, we planned to travel up to the Lochsa-Selway wilderness area for a week of camping and fishing.
While in Orofino, Max took me to the property where the grow was taking place. We walked a dirt road through forest and field, talking and reacquainting. He stopped for a moment and asked if I noticed anything. I looked around and discovered we had walked into a field of waist high marijuana, green and aromatic. Back at the property farm house, I was horrified to meet Max's partners in the grow. Mind-muddled hippie-types, unkempt and unwashed, who didn't seem to register the fact that they were living in filth and squalor. The house smelled of urine and was a mess, strewn sloth-like with all manner of junk, dirty clothes and dirty dishes. A dog followed a toddler around, eating baby shit out of a loose diaper. I couldn't get out of there soon enough. “Max, what are you thinking?” “Oh, man, I know it. But the girl owns the property and we'll harvest soon. I don't come around very often, just to tend the plants a little.” I thought the fortune hunter had lost his sense of quarry.
A few weeks later, Max and Margie drove to California and were visiting at my home in Orinda when a phone call came in from Boyd, who lived in Lewiston, Idaho. He told us that the property where the grow was had been busted and was front page news in Idaho. Everyone at the property had identified Max as the instigator and ringleader. Most were let go and one or two faced some misdemeanor charges. A warrant listing several felonies was issued for Max.
What do we do now? It was decided we would send Max and Margie to Hawaii to stay with Mom while things settled down. Mom had moved to Maui a year or so earlier and knew and adored Max as a close family friend. The motor home would stay with me, reasonably secluded at my home in Orinda. For the months it was there, I used it as my first recording studio, recording a handful of songs with Mark Spoelstra on a 2-track reel-to-reel recorder. They still sound good today.
Max spent several months in Hawaii, then returned to once again take up his vagabond life in the motor home. As the months rolled by he became bolder, once again venturing to the Pacific Northwest and one day found himself in the rustic, little known and secluded township of Troy, Oregon (population 26). Again, he would find a treasure. This time, though, it came as a house and property, a going concern with outbuildings, chickens, a vegetable garden, a tractor and a 4-wheel drive Toyota pickup. It also included a separate property, an acre or so on the Grand Ronde river. “We Trade for Most Anything” again proved to be Max's appropriate slogan. He could sell ice to Eskimos and charm sour grapes. He met the owner of all this who took a shine to Max's motor home and who was burned out on Troy, anxious to get out. They traded straight across.
Sometime later, after I had gone to work for Creedence, I got a frantic call from Margie. The law had caught up with Max. An Idaho sheriff with a team of deputies had arrived in Troy and took him off to Orofino in handcuffs. I, too, was distraught and cared for Max like a family member. But I had no money to speak of without putting my home in hock with a second mortgage. And that would take weeks, if not months. I went to John Fogerty.
I told John that someone who meant a great deal to me was in trouble and explained the circumstances. Without hesitation, John figuratively opened his wallet and told me to take whatever I needed. What a prince. We got Max bailed out right away and I hired Carl Maxey, a shrewd criminal attorney and former Attorney General for the state of Washington, as Max's attorney. With Max out on bail, there was no hurry, and it took some months for the case to wind through the court system. Maxey filed only a couple of motions, somehow blowing the state's case out of the water before the preliminary hearing, and all charges against Max were dropped. I don't think the little town of Orofino knew what hit them. But they seemed to understand that the defendant had powerful friends.
* * *
“Shoulda gave up a long time ago, I was young and dumb, a lot I didn't know, / Can't believe my lady would leave me alone, getting tired of livin' in the danger zone, / I'm gonna buy me a blow-up girl…”
—Max Halsey, “Blow-up Girl”
In later years, Max was drawn back to Maui as his relationship with Margie came apart at the seams. The sea became his new home, a sailing vessel replacing the motor home and Maureen, nearly thirty years his junior, became the last love of his life. Together they lived aboard “White Bird,” a handsome forty-two foot trimaran moored at the Lahaina roadstead. My brother and I were partners in White Bird, along with Max and our pal, Stu Cook. Becoming a part of the scenery around Lahaina, Max and Maureen were known as “the Old Man and the Girl.” Maureen once took a shine to another sailor moored nearby, inspiring Max to write “Blow-up Girl,” but it was a brief departure. Theirs turned out to be the relationship of a lifetime.
When the roof fell in on me and my brother, I was concerned that the feds might have learned about our interest in White Bird and might try to confiscate the vessel. As soon as I could reach him, I told Max, “...you always wanted to sail to Tahiti. This would be a great time to go. The next promising tide wouldn't be too soon.” Max and Maureen didn't stop at Tahiti. During the next five or six years while I was dealing with trials, appeals and prison, they circumnavigated the entire globe, another book in itself, arriving back in Maui about the same time I walked out of prison, a happy reunion for all of us.