Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Loretta Houck
by Steve Sparks, July 21, 2010
I met with Loretta one evening a couple of weeks ago at her new bookstore in the heart of Boonville — Laughing Dog Books. A couple of customers stopped by but we were able to have our conversation without too many interruptions at that time of day.
Loretta was born in Prescott, Arizona in 1955, the eldest of two daughters born to Patsy Ruth Allen and Laird McClellan Betts. Three years later sister Nancy was born but when Loretta was four her parents split up, and then another couple of years after that, when her mother had remarried, a brother, Robert was born. All four grandparents were born in the U.S. but Loretta has little knowledge of their heritage other than that her mother was of Welsh descent and had been born and raised in Hollywood, while her father was born in Mississippi and his family had some Scottish blood.
“We grew up about 50 miles north of Phoenix in the hills on the way to Flagstaff. It was a lovely town then, just a few thousand inhabitants, whereas now it has 50,000 and is a bedroom community to Phoenix. My father was a cowboy/ranchhand and competed in rodeos. My mother had been a secretary in Boise, Idaho and after they were married she worked as the ranch cook wherever my father found a job. When they separated, following my father’s affair with the babysitter, the family split up and I went with my mother to Los Angeles where she became a secretary at Lockheed Martin. I never saw my father again. My mother met and married my stepfather, forever known as the stepmonster and the nightmare began.”
Over the next few years Loretta found herself living in Alabama, Georgia, and various other states as her stepfather could not hold down a steady job due to his drinking and erratic behavior and it was not until 7th grade that she completed a full year in the same school. They lived in downtown Detroit for a time in the early sixties — a very tough place at that time. “At the age of seven I ran away and found myself at Tiger Stadium in the center of Detroit. I thought it was a zoo — ‘Tiger’ stadium — not the ballpark and couldn’t work out why I couldn’t get in. My stepfather was a very, very abusive man and this continued for years. Ultimately I was the only one who came through relatively unscathed. My sister turned to heroin and prostitution and my brother also went off the rails. I have not seen her for 27 years and I have seen him every eight years or so and he looks just like his father.”
In October 1964, Boeing in Seattle hired the stepfather — “he must have lied seriously on his resume” — and Loretta’s mother also got a job there. The world seemed to open up for Loretta at this point and she felt it was the beginning of a new life. The family lived in the suburbs of West Seattle for two years before moving to Auburn, Washington in 1967, about 20 miles south where they bought a house in the town, which was about the size of Ukiah. From the 7th grade until graduating from Auburn High in 1973 Loretta went through the same school system.
In 1969, the ‘stepmonster’ left and was later arrested in San Jose. The police called the house but Loretta’s mother did not want to speak to him and hung up. She never spoke to him again, although in 1975 he did come and collect his son, Robert. However, not long afterwards Robert had his arm broken in a fight with his father and returned to Auburn. Loretta did well at school, enjoying math, reading, and languages — Spanish and German. She was for the most part a straight A student although occasionally she did rebel against certain teachers, one in particular who reminded her of the ‘stepmonster.’ She generally cruised through her studies without much effort while also helping the Principal with some of his paperwork as the local Lions Club Chairman. In her final two years she started to smoke pot and in the end she graduated with a disappointing ‘C’ average although she never got into any serious trouble. She earned a little money as a babysitter then later got a summer job in the schoolbook depository, and between her junior and senior years she worked at the Big Scoop Ice Cream Parlor — her first restaurant job.
“I had a friend, Joan, who grew weed in her closet and I hung out with other kids who smoked and listened to the Rolling Stones. Joan’s dad was a car dealer and so she had a car and we’d drive around town and during that summer of 1973 we just hung out with older dope-smoking guys. My mother arranged for me to have an interview with the ITT School of Business and, as I wanted to travel, I enrolled in a business course for the airlines — hotel work, stewardess training, flight bookings, etc — hospitality and travel stuff. Then at the end of the nine-month course, United Airlines went on strike and the whole industry stopped hiring, not a single graduate from the course found work and I found myself in a few different secretarial jobs for the next couple of years.”
In 1976, at 21, Loretta took a job as the hostess at a new restaurant in Seattle. She got herself an apartment and worked hard in the business for a couple of years during which time she started dating John who worked for the phone company. It was the beginning of an extended ‘on again; off again’ relationship. She was now also bartending and found a new job at Club 401 in the city. “It was a great place to work but in early 1978 John was transferred to Pasco, Washington so I ended up moving there with him and enrolling at the Tri-Cities Community College, studying business accounting and German... On my birthday in May 1979 he proposed and I said ‘Yes’ but then in July he kicked me out. I decided to leave town and hitched across country with a friend to her family home in Tennessee before we continued on to Daytona Beach, Florida. Now the fun started... We lived in a beach house and found work as a cocktail waitresses. It was a really fun time for about eight weeks but then John called, crying and begging me to return. I caught the Greyhound bus to Phoenix where he met me and we took a couple of weeks driving back up to Washington, playing golf at various places on the way. We settled in together and were married on February 14th, 1980. Our whole time together was like very unstable. He’d often disappear for a few days at a time — let’s just say he had many issues.”
Daughter Jennifer was born on November 15th, 1980 — “Yes, she was conceived on our wedding night!” — and Loretta became a housewife and mother, taking a few classes at night school which became her social life too. In 1983 they moved to Spokane, Washington with John’s phone company job and were there for two years before the company split up and they moved to Seattle where Loretta went back into office work. “We began to fight a lot and when Jennifer was still in kindergarten, in September 1985, John and I decided to split up and Jennifer spent time between us. We basically let her choose — she was an old soul and more mature than us! John then married a woman who had a son close in age to Jennifer so she moved in permanently with her father and his new family. I went off the deep end.”
For a couple of years Loretta was a ‘wild and crazy girl’ in the bar/restaurant business, earning great money but spending it almost as quickly as she earned it. By 1987 John and his wife had separated and he and Jennifer had moved into a house and wanted Loretta to join them there. “It was a very hard decision. I felt this person could not control me any longer. It was a sort of abuse; different from that which my mother had endured but everything was always on his terms and it was not healthy for any of us. One day in December 1987 I walked Jennifer to school and told her I was leaving town. I then got on a Greyhound bus to Spokane, about five hundred miles away.”
Loretta had a place to stay with a bartender friend and a job at a fun bar/restaurant called Cyrus O’Leary’s. “It was a high-energy place that rewarded the best workers with the best shifts. I did very well there for a couple of years but it had been very hard to leave Jennifer and by 1989 I wanted to move back to Seattle. When I was visiting there for a basketball game between the Supersonics and the Celtics, I applied for a job as a server at Ivar’s Acres of Clams. They hired me and I moved back to Seattle, by which time John and his wife had reunited and Jennifer was living with them.”
While working at Ivar’s, Loretta became friends with another server by the name of Dan Houck and over the next several months or more they hung out with a group of fellow bartenders and servers, including Dan’s wife who became a good friend. Then in March 1990 Dan and his wife separated and Loretta took Dan to the airport as he departed for a new job on a crab processing boat in Alaska. The following August, Dan returned and then he and Loretta spent the Labor Day Weekend camping in Ashland, Oregon before deciding to make a trip to Key West they had often talked about.
“I had wanted to take a dog on the trip but as we were hitching that would have been tough so we took a bird instead — Jonathon Livingstone Cockatiel. It was a totally, totally amazing trip with many great memories. One of those is of being invited to stay at the home of a woman who was a park ranger at the Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, Utah. She was a modern witch, a Wicca actually, who lived in an amazing place with lots of dogs and cats. We’d put the cockatiel in the bathroom but then found him drowned in the toilet. I gave him ‘mouth to beak’ resuscitation and brought him back to life. However, the story has a sad ending because he flew into the ocean a few weeks later in New Hampshire and we never saw him again.”
They arrived in Key West in late October with a plan to get work on the shrimping boats but there was nothing available. Instead they both started work in the famous bar/restaurant owned by Jimmy Buffet — ‘Margaritaville.’ “We had a blast and lived on a boat for about a month before getting an apartment on Duval Street, the main drag on the island. We made lots of friends and then in April 1991, when Jennifer, aged ten at the time, visited us for spring break, I was at the airport putting her on a plane home when my name was called on the public address system. It was a call from John who told me he would not be picking her up at the other end and so she stayed with us. It didn’t take us long to realize that the Key West scene was not the place to raise a kid so we said our sad ‘goodbyes’ to our friends and all got on a bus to LA where we were met by Dan’s parents who took us to their home in Bakersfield. We were restless and thought about the Oregon coast as a destination with a job at the Rogue Brewery as a possibility. Jennifer and I went there and I found a little work at the brewery and we lived in a tent at nearby campgrounds. Meanwhile Dan found work with his brother’s landscaping business and a place to live in Sacramento. Jennifer returned to Seattle and I joined Dan in the July and found a restaurant job at a comedy club in ‘Old Sac’ with Dan working a second job in the evenings at a gas station.”
“In April 1992, Dan and I flew to London to begin our pre-arranged trip to meet with our Key West friends in Amsterdam for the summer solstice of 1992. We had brought all the cycling gear with us and assembled the bikes in the hotel room and set off for a few wonderful weeks riding around England, camping in people’s fields — everyone was very friendly. From there we caught the ferry to France and despite having difficulties with both bikes we managed to get around, visiting the Normandy beaches and war sites, enjoying the wonderful bed and breakfast places with their delicious bread and cheese, and finally getting to Paris and staying in the dorm room of a college where a professor friend of ours was teaching. That first night in Paris, before we found the room, was magical — playing cribbage all night on the Champs d’Elysee.”
After selling both bikes, Loretta and Dan set out with their backpacks and hitched to Frankfurt in Germany where they heard they of work at the nearby American army base. “Dan worked in the sewing section of the Post Exchange store and I became a waitress at Chi Chi’s Mexican restaurant on the American base in Germany! We also hitchhiked to Amsterdam and back to meet up with our friends for the Solstice on June 21st. I had been calling Jennifer quite often during the trip but she was not interested in really talking. Then in July I called John and found out that he had succumbed to crack cocaine and was totally out of it. His wife had kicked him out and Jennifer was now at her aunt’s house and wanted me to come home. I left Europe and Dan stayed on. I got back to Seattle, collected Jenn and fortunately, as fate would have it, Dan’s ex was moving out of their old apartment so Jennifer and I moved in, with Dan joining us that September.”
For a time Loretta returned to the restaurant business at ‘Merchant’s Café’ but in May 1993 she thought it was time to go back to the office world again and she was hired by the Sharpe Law firm as a legal secretary while she and Dan they lived in an apartment on Phinney Ridge in Seattle. “In December of that year we were at a lawyer’s Christmas party when I proposed to Dan, he said ‘Yes’ and we were married on a ferry boat in Elliott Bay, Seattle on April 1st, 1994. The reception was the next day at our local bar — the Eastlake Zoo.
In August 1997, they bought a house and then Dan became a professional brewer at the Pyramid Brewery in town. Two years later he got a call from the owner of a brewery in Kauai, Hawaii offering him a job there. “He had become a little tired of the routine at the brewery and wanted a fresh challenge so he went over for a couple of weeks and then took the job on a permanent basis in September. I had been at the law firm for six years and felt like a change too and moved over to join him in December 1999 but Jennifer, now nineteen, stayed at home. Once again we made some great friends but the job wasn’t great - the owner was not really a ‘beer man’.”
One of their friends from the Seattle beer community, Fal Allen, was now the general manager at the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. “He wanted to bring the entire Seattle crowd to the Valley but in the end only Dan and I made it. I moved to the Valley on August 14th, 2000 and Dan came a month later, neither of us knowing much about the Valley and its community at all. We moved in to a place in Yorkville but as it turned out there was no brewing job so Dan became the cellar man before taking a job in construction with Jeff Fox who was working on various projects at the brewery such as the tasting room, the horse barn, the storage cooler building, and even the disc golf course. Meanwhile I job hunted and found work with Organic Wine distributors in Ukiah, then I did some marketing at the brewery which lasted a month, before I settled at Yorkville Cellars where I stayed for two-and-a-half years working for Deborah and Ed Wallo. I then worked at Glad’s store in Boonville for a year or so before getting a job as the high school career counselor for about six months in 2004.”
Loretta went on to work at KZYX&Z local public radio in various guises, as the membership and volunteer co-coordinator, running the auction, the underwriting, and then, while still holding these positions, she was the morning voice with the news, as well as starting the ‘woo-hoo, it’s Friday’ thing. She left there in January 2007 and in April took a bartending job in Hopland at the Brutacao Restaurant and then later at the Walter Café in Ukiah, before finally settling in a job at the County as an office assistant in October 2007 which she did until July 2008 when she was promoted and worked in the Area Agency on Aging department, a job she still has today, along with running her new bookstore of course. “I guess I’ve always been a ‘gypsy queen’ — always on the move.”
As for her social life here in the Valley Loretta believes that if the Valley opens up and let’s you in then a social scene can happen in a big way. “I had social jobs here in the Valley and have had a fabulous time here. We would visit San Francisco about once a month but that is much less now. I have thought about moving on but Dan is grounded here. I’m very used to moving, obviously, and for a time it felt weird to be in one place but now I’m much more settled and can say to myself ‘this is it.’ I feel very comfortable and happy here.”
“I love this community; everyone knows fun things about each other. I loved Seattle but it was not the same as knowing people here. We are part of this real community and I really value that. My biggest complaint was that there was no bookstore in the Valley so on May 21st this year I opened one! I actually always thought I’d have a restaurant — I nearly bought Glad’s at one point and twice inquired about The Buckhorn bar/pub. The opportunity here happened so quickly. After I noticed the new patio and thought of people reading outside I went for it and had a crazy few months but it all came together as it needed to and I am very optimistic about its success. I am a pretty positive person and think that perhaps I was always meant to be doing this. I enjoy it very much.”
“One ‘complaint’, I guess, is that I have always been able to catch a bus or walk to where I want to go and here that is hard to do here. I love live music and performance but here we have to drive everywhere — it’s been a big drawback on my drinking life! I have come to terms with it and realize it is one of the trade-offs but it took a time for me to accept and now we live just five miles south of town and it works. If I had to change anything it would be to add a bank, improve the bus system, and a little more grocery shopping choice — the less time in Ukiah the better, even though I still work there.”
I asked Loretta for her views on some of the Valley’s talking points.
The wineries and their impact? “I am disappointed that the Valley has turned into a virtual monoculture at this point. Their arrival, and the subsequent effect on property values, has also totally negated the chance we will be able to buy property here and that is very disappointing. However, the jobs and tourism that come with the wineries keeps many businesses and individuals in work. There’s always trade-offs.”
The AVA? “It’s an interesting newspaper shall we say. I love the local stuff and it seems to grasp the flavor of the community.”
KZYX&Z local public radio? “I love that radio station almost as much as it frustrates me.”
Drugs in the Valley? “The methamphetamine scene troubles me but marijuana is fine. Anything in moderation is fine with me.”
Changes in the Valley? “In my ten years here there have been many openings and closures. It seems to be a place on the verge of becoming something quite big and may be that will happen.”
I posed a variety of questions to my guest.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “The sun always coming up. A puppy dog kissing my face in the morning. I’d love to do the bookstore full-time and it excites me to move towards achieving that.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Negativity.”
Sound or noise you love? “The sound of the ocean and seagulls.”
Sound or noise you hate? “An animal in distress.”
Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “My turkey dinner.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “My biological father, who left when I was four and I never saw him again.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “A photograph album with Jennifer, Dan, the dogs; the complete collection of the works of Edgar Allen Poe; a copy of the movie ‘Harold and Maude’ to watch over and over.”
Favorite film, song, book or one that has influenced you? “The song would be Tom Petty’s ‘Running Down the Drain.’ It has influenced me a lot in recent times. The movie I mentioned above. And a book would be ‘The Tao of Pooh’ by Benjamin Hoff, an introduction to Taoism.”
A smell you really like? “My turkey dinner cooking.”
Favorite hobby? “Reading — mysteries mainly.”
Favorite word or phrase? “I love the words ‘Anything can happen child; anything can be’ from ‘Listen to the Mustn’ts’ by the poet Shel Silverstein.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “A movie actress — what might have been if we’d stayed in Hollywood?”
Profession you’d not like to do? “A nurse. I admire them but couldn’t do the blood and gore. I couldn’t work in a nursing home either.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “Jennifer’s birth. Arriving in Europe and then spending that first night in Paris.”
The saddest? “The ‘dark ages’ with the stepmonster from 1961 to 1967.”
Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “My openness to the magic and wonderment of the universe.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well, if he said ‘Welcome home, daughter’ that would be great.” ¥¥
To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Mary Pat Palmer.)