Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Mark Fontaine
by Steve Sparks, May 26, 2010
I turned into the driveway exactly opposite Lazy Creek Vineyards on Hwy 128 and was greeted by Mark, wife Ellen, and their dog, Jasper, the rat catcher. Settling down with a never ending supply of coffee, some delicious ginger snaps, and a bowl of really outstanding grape crisp cobbler, Mark and I began our chat...
Mark was born Arthur L. Fontaine in 1940 in the town of Rochester, Vermont, the oldest of four children born to Maurice Fontaine and Phyllis Russell, with brother Maurice (now deceased) next, then Joan and finally Mary, the two sisters still living in Vermont. The Fontaine’s were of French heritage out of Quebec with Mark’s grandparents coming to the States and settling near to the Canadian border in a town called Richford. Mark’s grandmother lived to the age of 103 and had five husbands and twenty-three children although many died as children and most had gone by the time they were fifty. Originally they were a logging and faming family but they moved to central Vermont and Mark’s father became a foundry worker during World War Two, making munitions for the war effort.
On his mother’s side, the family was of English descent and they had arrived in the States in the mid-1800’s and settled in Vermont where they too were a logging family. Phyllis was born in Montgomery and at the age of eighteen she met and married Maurice, who was in his thirties. Maurice had become a law-abiding citizen by this time, following quite a few years during prohibition when he was involved in the bootlegging business. “He worked out of Smugglers Notch, a very steep-sided valley about fifteen miles long in Vermont, a notorious place for passing and receiving illegal liquor. That area of Vermont is now a ski resort owned by the Von Trapp family whose story was told in The Sound of Music. One of my Dad’s best customers was J.F.K.’s father, Joe Kennedy, who ran speakeasies all over Massachusetts.”
After the war the family settled on a farm in a very rural area near to Richford where Mark’s first memory is of riding a bicycle without a handlebar. “That was scary but it just didn’t have one and I wanted to ride a bike. We had a dairy farm with hay and corn for silage. I was driving farm trucks at fourteen and was given a license to do that with the result that when I got into racing cars at sixteen I was already a good driver. Me and my buddies were hell-raisers but I had my farm chores to do each day, getting up at 4am, milking the cattle, having some breakfast and then off to school. I was in a one-room schoolhouse from 1st-3rd Grades, then a three-room school from 4th-8th Grade. I went to Bradford Academy in town for my high school years and that is when I started to get a little out of control, doing all kinds of pranks at school. Around that time I bought a ’49 Ford from a highway patrol officer and put a 12-cylinder Cadillac engine in it and changed the whole rear end. I also installed a loud wolf whistle for the horn to scare the girls and added a muffler that was rigged to have fire roar out of it. I remember once stopping outside the sheriff’s office and seeing him dozing inside. I set off the mufflers and sped away. He tried to catch me in his car but had no chance. He confronted my grandfather about this but granddad backed me up and said I was with him so it couldn’t have been me in the car. After the sheriff left my grandfather gave it to me though.”
Despite this mischievous side, Mark enjoyed school and was a good student, graduating second in his class — “and I found out later that the girl who was first had been sleeping with the teacher!” His favorite subject was history and he played on the baseball team. His family was Catholic but apart from a few occasions they rarely went to church and it played little part in his upbringing.
He graduated in 1958 and had the opportunity to enter the Air Force Academy but chose instead to go straight into the Air Force. “I just wanted to get in and didn’t face the big picture. I couldn’t see past where I was on any particular day. I worked on the farm that summer, realized that farming and animals weren’t for me, and in August enlisted in the Air Force. I went to Texas, then Saudi Arabia for a year, before being re-assigned to Albuquerque, New Mexico to work with the B57 Canberra Jets. I was there for two years and during that time I did some bull riding. I fell off all the time and always seemed to land on my head, always leaving a mark for a few days that people could see — people started to call me ‘Mark’ and it has stuck ever since. There’s no connection with my real names at all. That’s the story... Anyway, some point, another airman committed suicide on the base. The Office of Special Investigations (O.S.I.) guys came in and I was very impressed with how they handled themselves. They were so professional, I thought they were just great — military men but in civilian clothes. I was told they were looking for agents and so I applied. They accepted me and I went to Washington D.C for training, specializing in counter-intelligence. I graduated in 1961 and became an agent in the O.S.I. with my first assignment in Korea at the Osan Air Force Base, situated outside in a nasty rundown village full of prostitutes.”
Mark was very gung ho about his well-being, the kind of agent the O.S.I. needed for its spying network. “I would accept any assignment, particularly those that might get me killed — that’s the way I was at that age. I felt I was indestructible and wanted to see how far I could push it. For a time I was the personal bodyguard of a U.S. Colonel who the North Koreans wanted dead. I figured, if I get killed too, so be it”... During this period the North Koreans had been building underground tunnels around the South Korean government house — The Blue House. This was discovered by the South Koreans and Mark was the agent chosen to go down the tunnels to set charges. The bombs exploded and the tunnels were permanently blocked... For the next five years he was responsible for coordinating the under cover operations between the U.S. and South Korean special investigation units from his base in Osan which included investigations into the smuggling operations between Korea and North Vietnam. In 1967, he was re-assigned to Sweetwater, Texas for nine months to investigate a smuggling operation involving a 2-Star General who was using an air crew and a C130 transport plane to load up pot and heroine in Vietnam and bring it back to the States, dropping it off in the desert beyond Sweetwater. As a result of Mark’s investigations, the General and his crew were exposed and sent to Leavenworth prison but it was felt Mark wasn’t safe after this so he was sent back to Korea. “The authorities felt my life was in danger so I returned to Korea. The smuggling operations were massive and there are still aspects that I cannot talk about. I was also involved in political assassinations during this time but I cannot say more than that. For years I was in and out of Southeast Asia and after all my work there, the South Korean customs department gave me a medal — I was the only American to get such a medal before or since.”
In 1963, Mark was married to Beverley and together they had three children — Scott, Brent, and Tracy. “Once we started the family I told the O.S.I. that I no longer wanted to do these dangerous missions. I had changed, calmed down somewhat, and wanted to be there for the family. They refused to re-assign me and insisted that I had to go on and finish some of the assignments I had started. They had other plans for me and strongly implied that I either agreed to this or I would never see my family again — a full Colonel said that to me. My wife and I split up — this was no life for her. She re-married and I did not see my kids for a long, long time - until the last ten years. They were out of my life for over thirty years but I have seen both Scott and Tracy in recent times - she traced me through the F.B.I. Brent prefers not to contact me at this point.”
Mark remained in Korea for a few more years, continuing to perform many dangerous assignments. He became a black belt in karate and really enjoyed the culture and food of Korea. One of his most dangerous jobs was to set up a listening post over the border in North Korea. “I has lost my family, I had nothing to go back to the States for really. I thought ‘what the hell.’ I made my way up the coast and then cut inland, I was alone and carried just a backpack containing the equipment. There is no doubt I would have been shot as a spy if anyone saw me. I set up the listening equipment in a tree a few miles inland, about thirty miles from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. It was my last significant assignment and when I asked to be let out to spend time with my father, who had had a heart attack, they agreed.”
Mark returned to New England in 1971 bringing with him a Korean woman, Kyong-ae, with whom he had worked closely on many investigations. “I married Kyong-ae so she could stay in the country and we ended up together for eighteen years, although for much of it we were not really doing things together. I intended to return to Korea but Dad passed and I took over the janitorial business he now owned and ran out of Dartmouth, New Hampshire. It was quite successful but a fire burned down the buildings we had and so I started an electrical company. That was fine for a time but I couldn’t settle so I tried real estate but ended up selling that too. I needed something different and was tired of the cold winters so in 1981, after ten years of not knowing what I wanted to be or do, we headed for California and initially settled in Milpitas where I bought a ranch and set up a horse boarding business with about seventy horses at a time. My wife, who was a practicing Buddhist, turned out to be a real fruitcake. She ran the martial arts school, that I had started, into the ground while I was too busy with the horses, and she started her own spiritual school. People would give her thousands of dollars to attend.”
Although Mark and Kyong-ae were divorced in the late-eighties, it was not before they had driven up into Mendocino County and had passed through Anderson Valley. “We fell in love with this place and in 1986, after seeing there was some land for sale, we bought it — six hundred acres, eight miles back up Peachland Road, on part of the Rawles Ranch. When we divorced she got the school and the horse ranch and I got to keep this property in Anderson Valley. I lived there in a trailer where there were a couple of ponds and I had some sheep, cattle, and horses. Of course the coyotes got the sheep and the cougar got the calves. It was tough back up there all alone and I eventually sold and moved to Redwood Valley in 1989 but not before I had made some good friends in Wayne McGimpsey of an old Valley family, the Hiatt boys — Charlie and Wayne, and Ray Ingram. They had some stories to tell and we’d hang out at the Horn of Zeese restaurant in Boonville and talk for hours. Unbeknown to me, Ray had a daughter who would later become my wife but I did not meet her for some time.”
When I was still at the ranch, a woman called Nancy had come down to get a horse from me. She was with two young girls, Jodie and Jenny, and she chose a horse that I thought was very difficult to ride. It wasn’t difficult for her as it turned out. Anyway, we became friends and I moved in with Nancy and her husband in Redwood Valley. It turned out that Nancy’s co-worker was Ellen Ingram, Ray’s daughter, and we met in 1990. She was the mother of the two girls I’d met when Nancy came for the horse and she also had a third daughter, Amanda. I had not had any luck with women for many years and Nancy and Ellen jokingly decided to try and help me find one by making out an application form for anyone who might be interested — ‘to protect me from myself’, they said. I thought about this and instead I asked Ellen out, telling her Dad Ray to keep the door open in case I changed my mind. Ellen agreed but she was concerned about daughter Jenny accepting me. She had not taken to Ellen’s second husband (her first, the father of the girls, had died in a drowning accident) but she soon did, saying ‘He’s got horses, he’s a cowboy, he’s fine.’ Ellen and I were married in 1991 in Redwood Valley, my sister and brother came out from Vermont for the wedding, and we’ve been together ever since.”
Ellen’s family, the Ingram’s, is amongst the oldest families of the Valley, settling here in the late 1850’s. Ellen had gone through school here before leaving for college in 1970. She had been raised in the old Ingram house but felt she did not want to raise her girls here where there was little for them to do. So even though Mark wanted to move back to the Valley, they stayed in Redwood Valley for many years before moving on to the Ingram property in 2008 where they live today. During those years in Redwood Valley Mark was involved in several business enterprises including a newspaper, a bakery — both retail and wholesale, and most successfully a advertising mapping company producing maps of local towns with various businesses paying to have their locations highlighted. This went very well and Mark was able to retire in 2006. “For most of those years over there I was into the family and our horses, and the girls’ 4-H activities. We had a great time.”
Since moving to the Valley Mark has become involved in the American Legion where he has been Commander and is now the Adjutant. He and Ellen try to get to the Senior Center for lunch/dinner a couple of times a week, and they are both docents at the A.V. Museum for the Historical Society. The big thing that has happened in recent times has been Mark’s conversion to a Born Again Christian. “I was converted two years ago and we attend the Valley Bible Fellowship in Boonville twice a week where we concentrate on the study of the Bible. We have a congregation that can be anywhere from twenty to fifty and I have accepted Christ as my savior. I sometimes preach and lead the singing of hymns. I studied on-line to get my Bible Study degree and the church has become a very big part of my life in recent times, both spiritually and for social events. I feel I have found my religion. I married a Jewish girl, dated Baptists, there was the crazy Buddhist girl, and now I am content with what I have found here.”
As a result of his experiences in the military, Mark still sees a psychologist. “I was very bad for a time but I greatly improved over the years. Then when 9/11 happened I went to pieces. Watching those Towers come down was so distressing; I cried for a week, I just couldn’t handle it and some of the memories that I had overcome and put behind me came flooding back. In those Cold War years I was involved in assassinations. Certain ‘enemies of the state’ were targeted and I was in the right mindset at the time to be one of the guys chosen to do this. I really didn’t give a damn what happened to me. These memories returned and I was on medications to stop the dreams and help me sleep. I was in a bad way and hit out at Ellen in my sleep, smashing the headboard behind her. The Veterans’ Administration referred me to a wonderful doctor in Ukiah called Paul Otto and I saw him every week for quite a few years. Now I am down to just a couple of times each year. My soul is wounded but my mind is much better.”
“Having said all that, I am proud of my service and was glad to finally get my ‘Black Patch’, acknowledging my service for the O.S.I.” (Mark showed me the patch along with his medal from the South Korean Customs department). “For years I never talked about being in the Far East — to many people back then we were seen as ‘baby killers’ and soldiers returning were not accepted like they are today when our military personnel receive very warm welcomes on their return. These days the soldiers wear their cap and medals with pride despite the fact that things are done the same today as they were back then. When the kids come back to these heroes’ welcomes it is hard for me when I reflect upon how things were for us when we came back.”
Mark is now settled back in the Valley and wouldn’t change is physical location “for all the tea in China”. He feels accepted here and when he spent time in hospital last year all the seniors signed a get-well card for him. “I just love the people here. They have such warmth and show concern for each other’s lives, without necessarily getting involved... And I think our new Deputy Sheriff, Craig Walker, is a wonderful addition to the community. We try to get away for a short time every summer in our 5th wheel R.V. that connects to the truck bed. We’ll be heading out in July to attend family reunions in both Modesto and Tahoe and we’ll take some of the grandchildren with us too.”
I asked Mark for his brief responses to various Valley issues.
The Wineries? “I think they’re great — some beautiful wines are made here in the Valley and they add a lot to the local economy.”
The AVA? “It’s controversial but I enjoy it.”
The School System? “I am not happy with the drastic change in the demographics at the school in recent years but that’s the way it is. I just hope all the kids at the school get equal attention from the staff. The Mexican community is here to stay and they are wonderful people. They get into trouble like anybody else and they are prepared to do the jobs many white people won’t.”
Recent changes in the Valley? “I am not a fan of so many Brightlighters (city people) coming through the Valley but if they support the local stores that’s something I guess.”
I posed a few questions from TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “I love my dogs and horses, and just love the smell of horse manure”...
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Stupid people saying stupid things”...
Sound or noise you love? “The sound of my grandchildren playing”...
Sound or noise you hate? “The noise of traffic, motorcycles especially — they go past us down the hill at about 90 mph.”
Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Rice and kimchi, a very spicy cabbage. In Korea they bury it in a pot in the ground for months until it ferments. I love to add spicy and hot sauces to my food.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that be? “My father-in-law, Ray Ingram. He knew so much about so many country things. He never went to college but was as smart as anyone. My favorite person.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, with provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “The Bible; a fishing pole; and a good book refuting evolution.”
A favorite film, song or book that has influenced you? “I am a voracious reader of religious books, I guess The Bible is my favorite; I love the movie ‘Dances with Wolves.’ As for music, western music is my favorite. Something by Clint Black.”
Favorite hobby? “Horse shows and reading.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? Fantasy job, perhaps? “A lawyer. I’m not afraid to talk to people and I like to argue my opinion, in a constructive way of course! I like to argue with Ellen. She usually wins but I get the last words though — usually, ‘OK’!”
Profession you’d not like to do or are glad never to have done? “I wouldn’t want to be a logger. I love the woods but wouldn’t want to take the trees down. And I’d hate to be a rattlesnake rounder upper.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “The day I met Ellen. And then I got to marry her, my best friend.”
Saddest? “When my father and my father-in-law died. Those are my two saddest days. I was in a fog for quite a time on both occasions.”
Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I keep myself busy. At this time of my life that is a good quality to have.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “If he said ‘Welcome home,’ that would be good.”
(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.Com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Patty Liddy of both the Theatre Guild and Variety Show fame,among other things. Oh, and she happens to be my wife!)