Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Mike Crutcher
by Steve Sparks, August 26, 2010
I met Mike at his home on Hwy 128 almost opposite The Grange between Boonville and Philo. I sat down with a cup of fresh coffee and a plate of chocolate goodies Mike and his wife, Karen, had picked from the newly opened Paysanne ice cream store in town and we began our chat.
Mike was born in Napa, California in 1963, the second of three children born to Marshall Crutcher and Patricia Silvestre. He has a sister, Patty Ann, three years older, and a brother David a year younger. He knows little about the Crutchers other than that before moving to the Napa area they were originally from Tennessee. His father was rarely around and at some point chose to have nothing to do with the family. Grandfather Silvestre came from Italy by boat in 1911 to Vallejo, California, where other family members had settled previously. Mike’s great grandmother had a house there that Mike vividly remembers as being at the top of a very steep hill. His grandfather opened a bar in town and met his grandmother there. When World War 2 began his grandfather, fearing that Italians would be interned at prison camps, decided to move the family to the Silverado Trail area of Napa which was far more rural and out of the way compared with Vallejo where the shipyards were situated and people might be on the look out for the “enemy.” Mike’s mother went to Napa High School where she met his father and they were married shortly after graduation.
When Mike was five his parents were divorced and his mother initially took the kids to live with their grandparents in Napa before moving to Fort Bragg on the coast and staying in the ten-by-fifty mobile home that the grandparents had bought for their retirement. Mike then entered 3rd grade in Fort Bragg. “The wine industry was taking off in Napa — I remember that to protect the blossoms, the growers used smudge pots that smelled of burning diesel and huge fans that sound like helicopters. The fans could be heard from a mile or more away and the combined smell and din was not nice. My grandfather who had owned the bar stayed in the alcohol business as a sales representative for liquor and wine and would often take me with him on his rounds to all the Italian-owned bars and restaurants he knew and did business with. We were always greeted in Italian and treated like kings as I remember... Then when we moved to Ft. Bragg it was different — a community based around the logging and commercial fishing industries. My mother dated a logger called Aldo Matuzio, known as ‘Moose’ as he was such a big, big man. There was lots of derogatory talk about the hippies when he was around, although Mom was a lot more open-minded about the new young generation of the late sixties and didn’t mind me talking to them if I saw them at the laundromat. Moose became my father figure and would take me fishing and hunting and I would pack his lunch and gas can before he’d go to work at 4am in the morning. I also went into the woods with him on many occasions when I was in my early teens.”
Mike attended Fort Bragg Elementary, Junior High and High Schools. In junior high he was talked into joining the band and became a drummer. “I thought if they wanted someone to beat on something then that was for me. It was when with the band that I first hung out in Anderson Valley when we marched in the County Fair Parade. I had also passed through many times when we’d visit my grandparents in Napa and I always thought ‘how cool is this place!’ People were always happy there, out of the fog and not drinking too heavily like so many loggers and fishermen did. We’d always stop in our 1965 Thunderbird where the Drive-In is now and have ice cream. It was a great little place to stop and I can honestly look back at my childhood and say that I was drawn to this place and its community from a young age.”
With Mike’s mother working as a grocery clerk and at other stores to earn money to support the family, Mike was primarily raised by his sister. “My sister was a good ‘parent’ although I did not make it easy for her I’m sure. I was great at getting out of chores and am probably responsible for many of Mom’s grey hairs and dementia! To say I was a high maintenance child is an understatement. I was always up to something; l loved the woods and it was a great place for a kid with a bike and a wild imagination. We lived less than a mile from the ocean and I’d ride my bike there to go fishing, often coming home with fish for my mother or sister to cook — which they did if I cleaned it first.”
At school Mike did well at the subjects he liked although in all his classes he was a big headache for the teacher. “If any of my teachers read this, please accept it as an open apology to all.” His favorite subjects were the sciences and from an early age finding out how things worked fascinated him. “I was taking apart my toys from when I was four years old and would get into all kinds of mischief with things even at that age, including blowing up my mother’s camera flash bulbs with a battery.”
In high school Mike maintained that same level of wildness although he was a good kid in many ways and did not really break any laws apart from some illegal firework activity. He was just mischievous. He took auto and welding classes at night school as he continued his desire to find out how things worked and worked on the family car and plumbing and was able to fix the windows he would seem to break accidentally with his BB gun.
“I was tough to handle for some I’m sure and then when I got a motorbike, a Honda 250, at the age of sixteen that was my wings. In junior high, I had worked in the summers on a commercial fishing boat and later got a job at Rex Pharmacy as a maintenance guy and stocking shelves. On February 5th 1979, I met one of the salesclerks there by the name of Karen and we started to date... Meanwhile, I was supposed to share my bike with my brother David but I needed it a lot more — it was how I got to work. Mom had insisted I got a job with my sister having moved out. Then one day David took the bike and somehow basically destroyed it. My mother defended him and I ended up yelling profanities at her so she told me to leave the house, for good. I was sixteen... This was in the early spring of 1980 and I moved into a friend’s house. His Dad helped me buy a car, a 1964 Chevy Malibu and I felt like I was king of the world in that thing. I would still see my mother occasionally and it has pretty much be the same ever since, although we have somewhat reconciled at this point but it was difficult for many years. She feels that at the time she did the right thing.”
After staying at his friend’s house Mike then lived in a couple of garages and even in his car for a time, but before his senior year one of his teachers offered him a large spare room (the top floor) in his house and Mike rented it for $75 a month. That was a difficult year of study for Mike and his attendance dropped off, although he did manage to keep up in the important classes. He and Karen were still dating and for some of the year they were “shacked up” together. “I felt like I had everything I wanted — a car, a girlfriend, a nice place to live, enjoying school, and a job. It was possibly some of the happiest days of my life. I had some great friends — we were not jocks, more cool nerds, and we did like to smoke a little pot... or actually as much as we could get our hands on! Led by Ganja Willy, who could roll a joint in ten seconds, we had a ‘Doomsday Pact’ that if we ever heard that missiles were coming in from the Soviet Union we’d meet up somewhere and Willy would roll one up and we’d be loaded when the bomb hit. We ran many practice drills to prepare for that!”
As part of his auto shop studies, Mike had joined the Industrial Club of America and not long before his graduation he attended the club’s award ceremony and dinner for all the clubs in the area that was held in Boonville. “I was sitting there with my friends and our teacher, not really paying attention to the awards being given out, when someone said my name had been read out and I should go up to the stage. I did so and was presented with a scroll of paper tied up with a ribbon. I had no idea what this was for but enjoyed the applause anyway. When I returned to my seat I opened the scroll and it said I had been granted a full scholarship to attend the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. It was as a result of a competition I had entered in the spring and had forgotten all about. I was overwhelmed. When I left the auditorium some Boonville girls came up to me with flowers and kissed me on the cheek. Once again I couldn’t help but think ‘I love this Valley. What is this place — it’s magical.’ I thought I’d won the Indy 500!”
Soon afterwards Mike graduated from high school and in July 1982 went to Arizona with his scholarship and some extra finances from his parents (who were in touch) and grandparents. He bought new tools — “some of which I still own” — and decided he would work as hard as he could to repay everyone for putting up with him. He came second on the motorcycle maintenance course at its conclusion and met many great mechanics during his time there. “I loved the desert and the people and the wild life, especially the reptiles and rattlesnakes.”
In 1983, he returned to Fort Bragg but could not find a job in the motorbike field so he started a job at a gas station, pumping gas and doing minor mechanical repairs. Here he met Richard Starr, an excellent mechanic who was opening a shop in Philo, Anderson Valley — Starr Automotive. “He gave me a job — the first employee of Starr, and for a time I commuted to Philo and loved the job. However, after a few months it was obvious I was just not good enough as an auto mechanic and Richard needed someone better than me. I understood completely and returned to Fort Bragg where I found work at Seafair — the lumber company’s department store where I did stocking and deliveries too, which I enjoyed for a couple of years.”
By 1986 Mike was working at ‘Sofa’s Beds Etc’’ a furniture store owned by Darrell McNeill (the child molester recently murdered by one of his victims). “He was a very nice person to work for — I guess you never know. There were rumors but I was always very skeptical about them.” During this time, Mike and Karen took a weekend trip to see a friend of theirs in Chico, California. While they were there he was offered a job at ‘The Little Engine Shop’ where they worked on all kinds of engines and repairing lawn mowers, orchard equipment and occasionally motorbikes.
“We were really ready for a change. We returned for a couple of weeks and then I quit my job, packed up, and we moved to Chico in 1987. We rented a cute a little house from Karen’s new employers at an educational supply store called The Creative Apple. It had the white picket fence and cute lawn and it was just a short walk to my job. We visited Fort Bragg during our time in Chico and were married in my sister’s backyard in September 1987. We loved our three years in Chico and cried when we left — we were really, really happy there.”
By 1989 Karen’s parents were living in the Valley’s Rancho Navarro sub-division and offered them a place to stay in a trailer on their property. Mike had by now decided he wanted to work for himself and so when Karen’s father, Jim Colling, told him that the Valley’s two pump guys — Bobby Glover and Smokey Blattner were cutting back on their work, he offered to go into business with Mike. Mike and Karen returned from Chico in November 1990 and opened Philo Pump and Power in the Floodgate area in time for the great freeze of 1990/91. “It reached 9 degrees in some spots and there were broken pipes throughout the Valley. It was great for business and I didn’t get a day off until the end of March! We made some money in those crucial early months of any small business and met many, many Valley people at the same time, with word of mouth getting us so much work. Old George Gowan, who had lived here all his life, told me it was the worst winter for more than sixty years. We were up and running and for the next six years I owned the business and did well before, with my father-in-law not in good health, we sold it to Jeff Pugh in 1996. It was a good decision and I still work part-time for Jeff to this day. With Karen having a steady job as a court clerk for the County I was able to go out on my own, doing freelance repair, plumbing and just about any sort of handyman work except carpentry — I leave that to the ‘artists.’.”
For a time, Mike ran the pump business from the property he and Karen bought on Monte Bloyd Road but when they sold the business they sold the land too and moved to Boonville to live behind the caboose, home of North Coast Realty. “I had met many Valley folks through my business and joined a group called, in Boontling, ‘The Kimmies of the Codgy Mosh’ — ‘Boys of the Old Machines’ who get together one afternoon a week to work on old tractors etc. There were some great mechanics in that group including Tom Miller a former helicopter mechanic — they are always the best. As Richard Starr said — ‘they can turn horseshit into ice cream.’ Others in the group were Jim Bowen Sr, Skip Harris, Doug Elliott, Bob Fowler, Frank Wyant, Wes Smoot, Dick Sands, and others too.”
Mike kept his musical interests alive by forming a garage band with Mark Gowan, Bret Stone, and James Thomasson. “We never had a name but came up with some decent, tasteless songs. When that folded I wanted to continue to sing and so I joined the Community Chorus. One of the members was Captain Rainbow, who I had also met on one of my jobs. He invited me to join the Magic Company and eventually I was a regular on the backstage crew, mainly dealing with the video, special effects, and sometimes the creative process for the Variety Show and many other Valley events, including the AV Film Festival, the Halloween event, and the Foodshed Group who just put on the ‘Not-So-Simple Living Fair’ here in town.”
These days Mike continues to do his freelance handyman work in the Valley and now also works on computer repair. “I have learned a lot more about electronics, radios, and television sets in recent years. The motorcycle thing has been very helpful over the years in so many ways even though I have not often worked on bikes themselves. Three years ago I started to work a couple of days a week at Rossi’s Hardware in Boonville. The Rossi’s treat me so well and it’s like being a kid in a candy store for me there, and on top of that I get to hear lots of the Valley history from Emil Rossi when we get a chance to talk. Karen and I moved to this cute little house on Hwy 128 with Sam Prather as our landlord. We love it here. I have a shop and Karen has her own workroom for her projects. It is a real home for us.”
“Anderson Valley has that same feeling as a whole too. It’s home — the only place that I’ve ever lived where I have felt that. Honest to god. Sometimes I may complain about something but when put into perspective against the positives about life here there is nothing to moan about. I must just say that I do have one thing that annoys me — the speed limit in the Valley’s towns should be 25mph. And one thing that would be nice would be to stop traffic completely when the Fair Parade goes through town — it’s for maybe 30 minutes on one afternoon a year. Why not?”
I asked Mike for his responses to some Valley issues.
The wineries and their impact? “I know many people who are not happy with their expansion here but they are just the latest crop/industry to do this. There are some good and bad things about it but in the end there is little we can do about it. I guess I am cool with it for now.”
The AVA newspaper? “I love it! We have a newspaper! And we have a public radio station in KZYX & Z. Good, bad, or indifferent we have these things when many do not. It would be a tragedy if we lost one or both of them and they both have something for everyone.”
The school system? “It’s an important part of Valley life and I hope the recent bond issue will encourage more parents to keep their kids here at the Valley’s schools. I’m very glad we still have an Agriculture Department, and a damn good one too. I put in the alternative energy project at the high school and recently fixed the laminator at the Elementary School — they think I’m some sort of wizard there.”
Tourism in the Valley? “We need it. It goes back over one hundred years in one form or another. Having said that I hate to get caught behind some motorhome that will not use the turnouts on Hwy 128! The changes in our small businesses have been good and many people in the community have been helped thanks to the tourist dollars. Thanks to the ‘defenses’ of Hwy 128 and 253, it’s never going to get like Napa here.”
Drugs in the Valley? “Personal use of marijuana is fine and if some people need a bit more to pay their bills than I’m not opposed to that either. I think the big illegal grows will go away if the price drops and indoor growing will take over most of the industry when it becomes legal with some small outdoor grows surviving. I don’t smoke at all and I don’t drink much either at this point. I get buzzed too easily but I don’t mind others doing it at all. As for methamphetamine, I have seen evidence of this but I’m not sure what the proper steps are to deal with it. It is a terrible drug but the solution may be to try and help the potential users before they go down that road.”
I posed a few quick-fire questions to my guest.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Solving a problem that I’m working on — the thrill of that ‘victory’ makes me very happy. It’s a magical thing for me.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Not being able to fix a problem. It’s as simple as that. I live for the puzzle and its solution.”
Sound or noise you love? “The coffee pot going in the morning.”
Sound or noise you hate? “The sound that coyotes make at night. It’s very spooky and awful. There’s no way you can ignore it.”
Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Karen’s chicken pot pie. That’s one heck of a pot pie.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Nikola Tesla, the inventor, mechanical engineer and electrical engineer. I have so many questions for that man.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “My ‘doctor’s bag’ of tools; several pencils and paper. It would be nice to be able to write thoughts down. And a good sleeping bag.”
Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “I am a big Beatles fan but I like many forms of music; a film would be ‘Groundhog Day. It cracks me up every time I see it. And I like to read technical books.”
A smell you really like? “Coffee and chocolate.”
Favorite hobby? “Fishing, whether I catch anything or not. As the saying goes, ‘A bad day’s fishing beats a good day of work.’ I also collect Barbie Dolls and have done for years — older and unique ones in particular. That’s strange to some people I guess.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “A pilot of some kind.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “A carpenter. I really suck at it and never had the talent for it so I’d hate to have to do it.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “I can’t really pin it down to one. I am a really lucky person and I’ve had many cool things happen to me. Meeting Karen was great and winning that scholarship, of course. I have been very fortunate.”
Saddest day or period of your life? “Having to put our dog Tora down last year. She was my very, very favorite and she captured my heart absolutely.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I’m a lucky guy and that it’s so cool that I can fix so many different things. It’s my obsession, my nightmare, my puzzle, me!”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “How about ‘Welcome to Boonville, Mike — glad you’re here because we have a problem with the gate.’ Now that would be perfect.” ¥¥
(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 Elaine Busse.)