Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Fred Wooley

by Steve Sparks, February 17, 2010

With Fred living at one end of the Valley and myself at the other, and no obvious quiet spot in town to meet, we decided to ‘risk’ The Redwood Drive-In on a Friday morning and sat down there with some breakfast and a cup of coffee each. I was concerned about too many interruptions as I sat with the well-known Sunday afternoon radio show host but it actu­ally worked out very well.

Fred Osborne Wooley was born in December 1946 at a hospital in Bronxville, a suburb of New York City, but his family lived in Manasquan on the New Jersey shore and that’s where he grew up. He had three younger sisters, Sarah a couple of years younger, then Anne five years after that, and finally Susan two years later still. “My father, also Fred, was a captain on a merchant ship, as was my great grandfather, and my Dad was at sea when I was born. He had grown up in New Jersey of English descent while my mother, Mar­garet White, was originally from Vermont but she grew up in the NYC suburb of New Rochelle. Again she was English and her descendants had come over in the 1760s. I knew my grandparents quite well because we had them all on each side of our house as neigh­bors until I was eight years old!”

Fred Wooley Sr. quit the merchant marines in 1952 and joined the Coast Guard. “He was gone virtually the whole time, getting just a couple of weeks off a year but he took a pay cut with the Guard to spend more time with his young family. He also had to take a demotion as the Coast Guard is regarded as military whereas the Merchant Marines are not and therefore he began at the bottom of the officer ranks, although he eventually did become a Captain in the Guard too.”

The new job would mean having to move the fam­ily every three years. “You had to be ready to do this, so although we started off in Staten Island, New York, in 1954 he was transferred to Long Beach, Orange County, southern California. It was a shock to me. I was in 2nd Grade. We lived on a housing devel­opment, in a tract home, in an area that was very con­servative, John Birch country in fact. It was the time of the McCarthy ‘witch-hunts’ for Communists and I have quite vivid memories of people talking about this. My parents were Republican but far from extreme. They became good friends with a neighbor across the street, an old-time Democrat, and they began to think a little differently about things. I remember my 9th Grade teacher at high school being targeted by right-wing wackos who accused him of being a Communist. He was very popular with the kids but they tried to get him fired for his political beliefs. My parents were friends of his and it got a lit­tle ugly. It was the first time I realized that there was a vicious struggle going on here in this country. There still is. The events made a big impression on me. My Dad ended up doing back-to-back tours in that area so we ended up staying there for over six years, until the end of my freshman year at high school.”

In the summer of 1961, the Wooley family had to move again with Fred Sr’s job calling for him to be stationed in New Orleans, Louisiana. “I was 15 years old, just learning to be ‘Joe Surfer’ in southern Cali­fornia and attending a very big school of 2300 kids. Suddenly I was in the outskirts of New Orleans in Covington, Louisiana, attending a school a quarter of the size. All I’d ever heard about the South was bad: the Ku Klux Klan, snakes, the oppressive weather. I was really bummed out about the move at first and was treated as the weird kid from California. It was very tough for me to fit in and although I did get good grades it was still like I’d gone somewhere in a time-machine.”

Growing up, Fred had often been taken on board ships by his father and had long known that was what he wanted to do for a living so he didn’t apply for a job anywhere else or for college when he graduated from high school in 1964. “Then I failed the physical because I had a mild case of scoliosis, a deformity of the spine. I had put all my eggs in one basket but for­tunately just being a graduate of a Louisiana school meant I could go to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge so I applied and got in there. At that time my family were moved on again with Dad’s job which this time meant going back to southern New Jersey and they lived in nearby Philadelphia.”

Fred says he was never a dedicated student and he really only went to college because the Vietnam War was building up and it was basically school or the army. “I thought I’d better go to college but then I flunked out after the second semester. I got a job in the summer of 1965 working on oil tankers up and down the east coast and in the Gulf and liked it so much I stayed on for six months and saved a lot of money. I eventually returned to college in January 1966 although I always returned to work on the tank­ers every summer until I graduated with an English major in 1970. Then I signed up for the Merchant Marines full-time.”

While at college Fred really began to get into mu­sic. “In 1964 I heard this guy called Bob Dylan for the first time. I thought this was the coolest stuff I’d ever heard. ‘The times they are a-changing’ was a song that really influenced me. I wanted to be Bob Dylan! I sort of became Bob Dylan in that I bought a guitar and harmonica and learned his music and then played his stuff live at bars around the college and in the local town. He was not a big name at that point but under­ground left-wing college kids would know about him and he had a solid following. Of course it was a time of lots of student anti-war protests and I played at various rallies opposing the war. My Dad did not approve but by 1967 he had taken the family to Ger­many for his next tour.”

Fred signed up for the Merchant Marines and worked for Esso (later called Exxon) “because they had the best deal of 80 days on and then 40 days off, more time off than other companies. I enjoyed the job but always looked forward to the time off and to the music scene I was in. In the end, in 1973, I quit the tankers and decided to give music a go full-time.”

Fred rented a home in Baton Rouge, painted houses by day, and played music at night. “We had our moments, I guess. It was a very embryonic band and I never made any real money. We played coun­try/hippy stuff, progressive country, and I was a hippy I guess but I was never able to take their ‘vow of pov­erty’ very well. I had many great times but eventually I got tired of being broke all the time.”

Fred returned to the Merchant Marines in 1977 with the firm idea of becoming an officer. “My Dad was very pleased when I became a 3rd Mate in 1979. I still had my hippy friends but unlike most of them I had a good job too. We continued to play music and I put out two albums, in 1980 and 1984. Meanwhile I gained lots of sea-time experience and was a 2nd Mate for most of my twenty-three years. I did become a 1st Mate towards the end of my time and ultimately a Master, although I never sailed as one. I still lived in Baton Rouge but most of my ships were anchored in San Francisco and sailed up and down to the Alaska oil pipeline, stopping in Seattle, S.F. and Los Angeles. I would make about four or five trips on each tour which once I was an officer was sixty days on and then sixty off at a time.”

Over the years Fred became very fond of San Fran­cisco and enjoyed many a shore-leave in the City by the Bay. “I had many great times in the City, it had always been a great sailor’s town. I also made friends with one of the Bay’s ship pilots, Russ Nyborg, and he invited me up to his home in Talmadge by Ukiah for dinner with him and his wife Annie. I loved the area up this way and heard the name ‘Boonville’ and thought that was a cool sounding name. I rented a car on one of my visits to the Nyborg’s and drove over to the Valley. It struck me immediately as a very tolerant place. I had bought horses in Louisiana in 1983 and had learned to ride and take care of them and I had decided I wanted to live in the country where I could have my horses. I had become burnt out in Baton Rouge so I contacted Bob Mathias at Rancheria Realty and he took me to a 40-acre parcel on the Yorkville Ranch. I had been making good money as an officer and something just grabbed me about the Valley. It seemed like a place I could fit in. I guess every sailor has a plan for a place in the country. I bought the property in 1986 and started to spend all my vacation time here. I contacted a contractor, Bill Charles, and we built a house with a workshop and horse stalls and I moved here full-time in 1988.”

“I didn’t know anyone up here but heard about a group of older hippy-types that would get together and play a version of volleyball they called Jungle Ball. This group included Captain Rainbow, Steve Derwin­ski, Buckhorn Bob, Lady Rainbow and Henry Hill, Doug Read — the kind of crowd I was into. I worked on the house for four years, during every vacation I had on my 60/60 schedule. I enjoyed my job but was always happy to come home to the Valley. Most of the people I worked with on the tankers were great people and I loved being responsible for the naviga­tion of the ship, charting the course while taking weather and distances into account, and being respon­sible for the equipment and corrections in the ship’s charts. I would do my twelve-hour days for sixty days at a time then come to Anderson Valley for two months.”

By 1989 Fred knew that this was a place he could make his permanent home and so he brought his horses to the property. “Prior to that I did not have a very optimistic feeling about how humanity was going. Country life appealed to me and the Valley seemed to be a place where I felt I could fit in. I was three-and-a-half miles off Highway 128 up a dirt road, with no power or phone but soon I got a solar system in and finally ran a ‘farmer’s’ phone line up to my house about 15 years ago. I love it here and was married to Kim Howland, an artist, in 2006 when I was 59 years old. I have built her a studio on the property. It’s nearly finished — like lots of the jobs many of us liv­ing up here seem to have! One of the downsides of living up here in this beautiful remote place is that everything involves driving, a trip down a mountain for many. I accept this now but at first driving up here was like driving to the end of the earth. However, I do like being off the grid. It’s one more step towards complete freedom.”

Fred has also done his bit for the community by serving as a volunteer firefighter for the past 13 years and, since 1990, he has either had his own show or been a fill-in on the local public radio station, KZYX. He has now had his own show, ‘The Audible Feast’ for 14 years. “I was a big fan of public radio in my Baton Rouge days. In those days I loved the program, ‘Music from the Heart of Space,’ an NPR show featuring mostly ambient music; very peaceful, dreamlike music and I would often record the show. I love turning people on to music and I have always made tapes for friends. I talked to Pilar Duran and Johnnie Bazzano at the station and they showed me how to work the equipment. Initially I shared a show with Joe Petelle on Saturday at 9am called the ‘Wage Slave Wake-Up.’ Joe tired of doing the show so Teresa Simon, the sta­tion manager at the time, put Jimmy Humble in the slot and I shared another show (I was still on the ship half the time) with Long John before eventually I got my own slot on Sunday at noon, taking over a show from Charlie Hochberg and Steve Ruben but keeping the ‘Audible Feast’ name.”

“I love the Valley’s sense of community, people pulling together. As I said, I wish I could do less driving but that’s ok, given the plus points of life here. Being involved in the fire department and on the radio gives me a great sense of community. Both are lots of fun and volunteering is a great thing, being a participant and not just an inhabitant. However, I do think about growing old here and it could be difficult where I live. The day will come when I am too old for ranch work and will probably move to town at that point, hopefully a town in the Valley. We’ll see.”

I asked Fred for his views on a few of the issues that Valley folks discuss on a regular basis.

The wineries and their impact? “I have lots of friends in the business and I love wine. It is an impor­tant part of the local economy and provides jobs for many people. Of course the use of water is central to this issue and I wonder if we should have any more vines here. I don’t like outside outfits coming here with outside workers, and the use of pesticides is a concern too. Organic grape growers can succeed, I’m sure. They just have to learn to live with the bugs. I know it’s a very emotional issue, like logging was for years. Too much timberland was bought up by corpo­rations and quickly turned into money and then they left. Will the wineries do the same?”

KZYX? “I am a big fan. Public radio is a beacon of light in the darkness. It’s not perfect by any means but it is a huge help in informing people of what is going on. News reporting is so incomplete on com­mercial radio. I like the NPR. ‘This American Life’ is very creative and just grabs you, the Celtic music show, and Jimmy Humble’s show.”

The AVA? “I like the AVA, although in the past there has been some made-up stuff. I do love these interviews. They help us understand each other bet­ter. They are a great addition to the paper.” (I gave Fred a $20 bill at this point!)

Changes in the Valley in recent times? “They are inevitable. Even this little Shangri-La has to learn to adapt to change and live with that. Life in the US has been too good for too long and we’re going to have to learn to change. The U.S. as a whole doesn’t want to hear that and we continue to have a shitty attitude as a nation that we project around the world. We are not entitled to have stuff others can’t have. We must learn to compromise if the world’s problems are to be solved. We need to check religion at the door and work it out together. However, as gloomy as it looks sometimes, I do see lots of signs of hope.”

I posed a few questions from a list devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert,” Bernard Pivot, featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”

Favorite word or phrase? “I like the phrase, ‘We deserve what we put up with.’ It can be applied to all walks of life. I also like a line from a Clint Eastwood movie where he plays a marine drill instructor and repeats over and over to the recruits, ‘Improvise, adapt, overcome.’ That’s very good advice.”

Least favorite word or phrase? “I can’t.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “To play a good song well. I get a lot of satisfaction from that. Also from photography, paintings, images.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Bone headed people; narrow-minded­ness; an inability to look at the big picture. Most peo­ple are pretty decent if they get good reliable informa­tion but too often they get their ‘facts’ from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.”

Sound or noise you love? “Music of all kinds; a cat purring is a great sound too.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Television playing in the background or in another room, particularly singing commercials. It’s like fingernails on the blackboard to me.”

Favorite curse word? “F***. Everyone’s favorite I would think. It is just a part of a sailor’s language where profanity is required, although it can be pictur­esque sometimes if used correctly.”

Film, song or book that has greatly influenced you? “I am a movie guy rather than a reader but I did love ‘All the Pretty Horses’ by Cormac McCarthy and have probably read just about all his books. ‘The Man who would be King’ with Sean Connery and Michael Caine is a great movie and I often think about it. As for a song it has to be ‘The times they are a-changing’ by Dylan. It said it all for me and a generation and it’s just as true today.”

Favorite hobby? “Woodworking, photography.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “An actor. I am a big movie fan and for me the character actors, the smaller parts in a movie, are the real heroes. Or may be an English teacher at a high school.”

Profession you’d not like to do?  “Salesman.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “When I got my Master’s license in the Merchant Marines. It was the biggest piece of paper I could get in my profession and meant I could be a Master of any size ship.”

Saddest? “When my mother died last year at the age of 90. She was an amazing woman.”

Favorite thing about yourself physically, mentally or spiritually? “That I am not afraid to try something. Sometimes this has got me into things I should have had help with. It comes from being on a ship for so many years where it’s important to make things work. It is amazing what you can do when you are up against the wall so to speak,”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Steady as she goes.” It's an old sailor’s term for ‘keep on going the way you’re going’.”

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Wallen Summers.)

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