Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Bruce ‘Pat’ Patterson

by Steve Sparks, October 27, 2010

I met with Pat (he much prefers that name to Bruce) at his house in the lower reaches of the Valley’s western hills overlooking Anderson Valley Way. After giving me the “5c tour” of the property, as he put it, he very kindly made me some lunch – delicious chicken cacciatore and garlic bread and we sat down to chat...

Pat was born in Cook County Hospital, Chicago in November 1949 to parents Amelia Moravcik and Charles Edward Patterson, whose daughter, Patricia, was born six years earlier. The Moravcik’s were originally from Slovakia where Pat’s grandfather, a veteran of World War 1, was a machinist in Bratislava. He came to the States as a refugee from that war and was a janitor in Chicago. When he was somewhat established he sent for a mail order bride, Teresa, from his home country, who worked as a washerwoman in the downtown Loop dis­trict. They lived in Chicago’s west side where Amelia grew up.

Pat’s father was the Irish bastard son of Pat’s grand­mother, Alberta Rose. She was born in 1903 of Irish farming stock, and had arrived alone in the States, preg­nant at the age of 18. “My paternal grandfather’s last name was Boyd, but he was sent to prison for rustling hogs and my grandmother had to leave town, pregnant, and headed for the States and a new life. Meanwhile Donald Bruce Patterson, of Scotch/Irish descent, who had been a coal miner in Florence, Colorado, had moved to Chicago because as a gifted artist he had received a scholarship to attend the Chicago Art Institute in 1920. Around that time he met Alberta Rose and they fell in love and were married, and when my father was born he took my step-grandfather’s name.”

“My parents grew up in the multi ethnic west side of Chicago that had some of the city’s poorest slims. There were all sorts there - Irish, Polish, German, Ukrainian, but it was pretty much run by the Italians. Most of my family dropped their heritage and wanted to be known as ‘Americans’ with my Dad proudly serving as a pilot in World War 2. I was from a very dysfunctional family and I was a ‘mutant’ kid with a terrible stutter, although it should be said that my grandfather Patterson was a large and very positive influence on me.”

At the age of four, in 1953, the family moved to the Highland Park district of Los Angeles. “My Dad called us ‘bats out of hell.’ To poor families living in Chicago’s slums, California was the ‘promised land’, Los Angeles in particular. My father was a regional salesman for Fire­stone Tires, working in southern California and Nevada. Over the next few years my mother became physically and mentally ill and my sister got married at eighteen and left home. My parents split up around that time and I basically became a juvenile delinquent at the age of twelve. We went on welfare although my father did give us money under the table. My mother could barely take care of herself so I brought myself up. I had no ability to see the consequences of my actions and had been com­mitting petty crimes since kindergarten, nothing mali­cious but still not a good thing. My stutter was bad, and I was ridiculed because of it, so I started to hang out with the bad boys for protection. From the age of twelve to fifteen I did whatever I wanted to do – petty crime, vio­lence, etc. I was kicked out of three high schools and was basically out of control. I was stupid, and always shocked when I got caught. I hung out with a kid called Michael Reagan, my best friend, who was even wilder than me - he is doing life in Folsom after he killed a guy just for fun... He was into the Mexican gang scene and although I was never in gangs I had many friends who were. There were many Okies in our neighborhood too, and Italians, and lots who had moved from Chicago, although no black families. I hung out smoking ciga­rettes and drinking beer with many foster home kids and former high school football players who were too out of control to practice. The cops were thuggish but not cor­rupt as far as I knew. You learnt very quickly to not mouth off to them and to say ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ and not to run away from them!”

Pat continued to get into lots of fights as he responded to taunts about his stutter. “It was me and Michael against the world and we found many stupid things to do. We were misfits, outcasts, basically f***ed up.” When he was 15, Pat’s mother was admitted to the State Mental Hospital and his father got custody. They lived in a suburb of Pasadena near to the Santa Anita racetrack, along with his father’s second wife and her two kids, Tim and Susan, who became Pat’s stepsiblings. “My Dad tried to straighten me out and, thanks to his connections, at the age of sixteen I left school at the end of 11th grade to work for Firestone, busting tires. That was o.k. for a time but I was not content.”

On November 13th, 1966 Pat volunteered for service in Vietnam as a soldier in the Army infantry. He signed up for three years and during a year of training, and waiting until he turned eighteen, he was in the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions before joining the 173rd Air­borne Brigade in Vietnam, arriving there on November 27th 1967, just fourteen days after his 18th birthday.

“It was all volunteer units, I figured I would join an airborne division for the extra $55 a month hazard pay. I was scared of heights so I soon had to overcome that. I was with some real gung ho guys who were very serious about their soldiering... I had totally believed what my government had been saying about the war and that as a patriot I belonged in a foxhole. I was an able-bodied sin­gle male and wanted to help my country if it was at war – it was as simple as that. I wasn’t going to tell my grandkids that I didn’t help do my bit in the war and hung out smoking dope in a commune instead – not that there is anything wrong with that!”

Pat was in combat for six months in the Central High­lands of Vietnam. ‘”I was an infantryman, a grunt, out in the sticks looking for the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). I saw many Vietnamese soldiers, mostly dead. I was rarely in the villages with the civilians and never saw any of the violence that happened there, although we did pass through many destroyed villages and witnessed thousands of refugees. I spent most of my time riding on the edge of a helicopter with my rifle on my lap and saw lots of destruction. I saw the war; I lost many buddies. I was there to kill Communists, they were no better than the Nazis, but many others were killed too. You learned to have a mind set that you were already dead, psycho­logically. After that, and spitting in the eye of god and the devil, the rest of life can be a bit of an anti-climax.”

“I had knowledge and a sense of history but we were misinformed. I had role models who had fought in World War 2 and Korea. It was very natural for me to volunteer for Vietnam. There was a lot of anti-communist hysteria in the U.S. at the time. So much of it was ignorance. The Iraqi and Afghan conflicts are just extensions of this.”

After six months in the combat zone, Pat caught malaria and spent three months in hospitals, returning to the States and experiencing the conditions and sights of the hospitals there. “I turned against the war after what I saw over there and then back here. In 1969, along with a buddy, Joe Miles, and others, I co-founded a group called ‘G.I.’s United against the War’ at our base, Ft Bragg in North Carolina. It was the home of 60,000 GI’s, the 82nd Division, the US Guard of Honor. We put out a newspaper, ‘Bragg Briefs’ and put forward our point of view, agreeing with a general who had said the war was ‘one of the most base and cowardly acts of the twentieth century.’ I had had the privilege of killing enemy sol­diers but I would never have consciously shot non-com­batants. By forming this group, in the minds of many, I went from being a professional communist killer to a communist sympathizer or traitor. We didn’t bend and got lawyers involved so that in June of 1969 17 of us brought a class action suit against the Presi­dent/government, accusing them of violating the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 9th Amendments to the Constitution. It went to the Supreme Court where they ruled we had a right to say what we wanted but only if we were given permission. We didn’t win the civil rights issue but the military code of justice was changed and there are a lot less ’kangaroo courts’ today as a result of our actions.”

In December 1969, Pat was honorably discharged. He was twenty, “still not old enough to vote or drink legally.” He moved to Taos, New Mexico where he worked on a ranch and dated hippies. “I was not a hippy. I was a young person who smoked pot. I had married ‘Sam Laing” who I had met in Carolina and we moved on from Taos to Los Angeles. By this time ‘my LA’ had gone — it had become a city built for cars not for people. I never even visited my old house and neighborhood – those guys only wanted to know how many ‘scalps’ I had got in Vietnam. I didn’t want to talk about that. I had changed a lot. I went back to busting tires once again and went to college for three semesters on the G.I. Bill. In the fall of 1970, I co-founded, along with Ron Kovic (of ‘Born on the 4th of July’ fame) and others, the LA Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans against the War and met the likes of Tom Hayden and Joan Baez– good peo­ple, celebrities yes, but good people and working towards the same cause as myself. I also volunteered in veterans’ hospitals and on the McGovern presidential campaign in 1971, which ended in defeat to Nixon. During the following few years I was involved in a num­ber of acts of civil disobedience including the occupation of the Naval Reserve Training Center and many others, resulting in being arrested in four states between 1969 and 1973. Only once in California though, for pouring lamb’s blood on the steps of the induction center. Sam and I split up during this time, which was too bad - my Dad had said she was a lot like me only smarter. I left L.A. in 1973 and moved to work on an organic farm in Fresno, CA. set up by Joan Baez and friends.”

Pat basically re-invented himself at this time, cutting ties with many people, including family. He felt all-alone and threw himself into work on the eighty-acre farm. “I had changed so much. I had to get out of LA before I killed somebody, or myself. I was now by myself, for myself, and had been born with a love of nature so this move suited me.” Pat threw himself into this new environment, working mainly on irrigation projects before he fell out with the boss and moved on. He was in contact with an old friend, Todd Friend, who had served three years for draft resisting and so in the winter of 1973-74 he moved to where Todd lived in Raison City and worked on an organic farm there. From there he moved in with Todd and Todd’s girlfriend in a barn in Healdsburg in northern California. “I worked for the State Office of Rural Manpower working in the fields picking grapes and plums, on a ranch with chickens, and basically all aspects of farm work in the Healdsburg / Geyserville area. I stayed in that barn and it was the worst period of my post war life, yet in some ways looking back it was hilarious and has become the topic for my latest book — ‘Turned Round in My Boots.’ I was hanging out at ‘Hippy Heaven’ in Yorkville, officially called the Pomo Tierra Commune, where there were lots of loose, topless women which was good for an ex-G.I. like me who was all alone. I met Tricia there and while I had no intention of ‘going hippy’, I fell in love. She was from Chicago, was well-educated, and had been in the Peace Corps. I had no real intention of staying here but once I fell in love and had spent time in the redwoods I did not want to leave.”

In 1974, the barn burned down and so he split time between staying at the Pomo Tierra Commune and a farm in Geyserville where he and other friends had found work. At one point he joined a sheep shearing crew where he ‘stomped fleeces.’ One day, a logger, Colin Wilson (now the Valley’s Fire Chief), turned up needing someone to help in the woods as a choker setter for work in Rancho Navarro. Pat took the job in the woods earning $4.50/hour. “I worked back and forth between the woods and vineyards and would often stay away from the commune for periods of time. Eventually though, I went full-time in the woods and became a timber feller and moved full-time into Commune in the Valley. I was in between the two groups – the hippies and the loggers. I loved working in the woods — the sense of danger, the adventure, and the guys on the crew. I did it for seven years. I had long hair but was hired to work in the woods because I was a vet – they would not hire hippies or Mexicans... I also loved the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll of the hippy lifestyle. I went to many ‘hippy be-ins’ in the Valley and beyond during that time. I was actually neither a hippy or a redneck. I was a Veteran and belonged to neither group but was sympathetic to both. I was an outcast, a misfit, but a relatively successful one. I don’t take orders very well although I do find myself making more compromises as I’ve got older, particularly after having kids.”

In 1978, Pat and Tricia had son Abel, with second son Jeff in 1981. Then, in 1982, Pat left the woods and moved to a job working for Lawson’s Xmas Trees in Yorkville, a working ranch where he worked on roads, land clearing, construction, destruction, cattle, and Xmas trees. In 1986 they moved to Navarro and around that time Tricia got a teaching job at the school. “That was a huge thing for us. It sprung us out of poverty and living hand to mouth. It took the weight of the world off my shoulders and changed my life.”

In the mid-80s, Pat and a friend from his logging days, Danny Bender, started an independent firewood and redwood split stock business. One of their clients was Nick Alexander of Horse Haven Ranch who bought a lot of fence posts from them. “I had learned a lot from Wayne McGimpsey in the woods and Danny and I could split and stack a cord of wood in an hour.” In 1989, Danny was hired by Nick and they then hired Pat. However, Danny had a falling out with Nick and so he left to work at Starr Automotive in Philo. Pat was initially torn about Danny’s departure and considered leaving too, but with a young family to support he decided he had to stay on at Horse Haven. “In 1989, I became Nick’s foreman on his two ranches – the one up above Navarro and the other one opposite Jack’s Valley Store. There were all aspects of ranch work and we had between twenty and thirty thoroughbred horses to take of. I was there for fifteen years until 2004 and the boss let me do things my way and gave me plenty of independence. It worked out very well.”

At that point Pat thought it was time to move on and has now applied himself to writing full-time, although he still is a part-time woodsman and ranch hand. “I still get involved in irrigation projects and reforestation work – that is my thing. If you have some woods that are struggling, then hire me — redwoods, fir, cedar, Ponderosa pine. There are several locations in the Valley where I have planted trees by hand that are over fifty feet tall now. Meanwhile, my writing has gone very well and my new book has just come out. It’s actually a prequel to the first book, ‘Walking Tractor’, and is called ‘Turned Round in My Boots.’ It’s a different kind of book in that it’s autobiographical instead of short stories, After finishing that, I challenged myself to write a story every ten days for a year and I am managing to do that. They are on my blog at www.4mules.com”

I asked Pat for his opinions about various valley topics of interest.

The wineries and their impact? “I support the owner operators in the wine industry. I am entirely sympathetic to the farmers, not the corporations. They are sucking the water dry. Everyone knows it whether they admit it or not. I don’t believe in drip irrigation, or the use of herbicides and pesticides. Dry farming works — has done for a long, long time. Long pruning has worked for thousands of years —these other methods of frost protection aren’t needed. Farm the soil not the plant. Wine grape farm work is the aristocracy of farming but the monoculture here at this point is bad. The loggers, ranchers, farmers, tradesmen, etc were multi talented. They wouldn’t get lost in the woods like some of the more recently arrived residents do. They wouldn’t shoot somebody out there, unless intentionally. It’s the government’s fault. The subsidies given to the wineries are all wrong. How do they have the right to our water? They claim ‘beneficial use’ if they can prove it. Taking the water is not beneficial.”

Logging? “We need to do more reforestation. Here we are in the heart of the richest soft wood forest on earth and it is overgrown with weeds. This is prime timberland – the best in the world – we need to get on this and in twenty years we can be back to that. People said the lumber companies would ‘rape and run’ – they did. When they started killing baby redwoods I knew it was time for me to get out.”

The AVA? “I love it. It has the best stable of writers you will find anywhere. It is the thoroughbred racehorse of small town journalism. Bruce Anderson is more accurate than any journalist you are going to read.”

KZYX local public radio? “It needs some new young blood. They do have some good programming though. Why don’t they play Mexican music during the day when the guys are working in the fields? Opera and jazz are probably not received too well at that time and when most of the Valley is Mexican then surely this is what should be played more.”

The School System? “The general problem of a public school system is that it is designed to make the kids bigger morons than their grandparents. It no longer serves the corporations to have an educated populace – tyranny has never liked that and feudalism has lasted because of this.”

Changes in The Valley? “There is a big difference between the homesteader economy that existed for many people up through the seventies to the rural gentrification and corporate entities that we have seen here in recent years. Add to this the import of Mexican labor, of which there was very little in the seventies, and the Valley is very different today to when I arrived. The world is in bad shape ecologically and the Valley is a microcosm of California’s problems. There were thousands of sheep and apple orchards everywhere here but that’s all gone now obviously. It is still a beautiful place and the tourists like that too so I guess that’s good. Besides, if I didn’t like it here, I’d leave.”

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire featured on television’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? “Felling trees; shooting pool.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Gold-plated ignorance.”

Sound or noise you love? “Desert silence.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Helicopters. I have too many bad associations. Gunfire and explosions too.”

Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “When you’re hungry, all meals are a feast. You’re hungry all the time in war. If you’re backpacking and eating rabbit food for days then even a Big Mac will taste good afterwards.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Too many. How about Jesus, Buddha, Mark Twain and me in the same room?”

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? “I’d go stark-raving mad so I wouldn’t need anything.”

Favorite film or book or one that has influenced you? “Well I loved ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ – the book and the film. I like the books by Kafka and George Orwell too. My weakness is buying books, along with drinking and smoking.”

What is a smell you really like? “Sage after a rain in the desert. that’s my kind of country but you can’t make a living there unless you’re a successful prospector.”

What is your favorite hobby? “Hiking, exploring.”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “A junior high school history teacher.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Anything corporate. And there is nothing more stupid than the military authority so I’d hate to work for them.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “When our first son was born. His eyes were not open at first and I moved my finger across his line of vision and his eyes opened and he tracked my finger. I was hooked instantly.”

Saddest day or period of your life? “That winter of ’73-‘74 in the barn.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I’m still alive and not in prison.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well, there is all the heaven and hell you can want right here on earth, so it doesn’t matter.” ¥¥

(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 Dick Browning, current School Board member and more!)

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