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Oaky Joe Blows Hot & Cold

I know James Taylor has seen fire and rain. I have heard him sing about them. Bully for him. I, too, have seen fire and rain, lived with them and nearly died from them. I have also lived with freezing cold and burning hot. I remember one January when it started to rain and then the temperature dropped and the rain turned to snow. My wife and I were living on Cerutti Ranch in Lake County. 

I was growing up on Cerutti Mountain in the middle of an area that had been clear-cut by Bobby Dutcher, who owned and operated a logging company. A land raping piece of shit, Dutcher was anti-pot but prepared to cut down every single Doug Fir. He clear-cut 17 acres and left a big mess. This was at about 7,000-feet above sea level. There were no helicopters, no thieves, no dirt bikers and no cops. It was private land and a paradise for a grower and fisherman.

There was a pond stocked with huge German brown trout. When it flooded in the rainy season trout went over the spillway and all the way down into the Eel River. People scratched their heads and asked, “Where did all these brown trout come from?” 

My wife and I lived in a 25' green Aljo trailer. We had everything we needed, including a TV with four channels and tons of books by the likes of Stephen King to read. To last through a snowstorm we had to stock up and have plenty of food on hand. Once a week we shopped at the coop in Ukiah. During the winter we'd be stuck up on the mountain for a couple of weeks at a time. I remember in the morning, the sun would come over the Snow Mountain Wilderness on the other side of Lake Pillsbury. It was beautiful to behold: what's called a "winter wonderland." 

We had to have special vehicles to travel through the snow, including a Cushman Trackster SnowMobile with two tracks. All the structures we built, including a gorgeous outhouse, had to have slanted and reinforced roofs because of the snow that piled up. We had extra propane and 55-gallon drums that were supposed to be bear-proof where we stored our food. But one winter, a California brown bear ruined our $1,000 propane refrigerator. Chewed the door off, mostly. 

After a while I would get cabin fever and pray that it would warm up. Indeed, as soon as the sun came out and the temperature rose I could hear the sound of the snow melting, drip by drip, and drop by drop. In the winter, we were the only people up on Cerruti Mountain. Debby M., who inherited the land, and her husband, Warner, came up once, in a Duce and 1/2, but a bear had been hibernating in their cabin and it was unlivable. The bear had been producing feces all winter. Warner and Debby didn't bother to clean it up. The cabin was a total loss.

Bobby Dutcher clear-cut a lot of the land Debby inherited from her grandfather who bought it in 1917 from an Indian with a turban. Dutcher cut 280 acres in Lake and 40 acres in Mendo. Debby's property straddled Lake and Mendo. After the snow melted, the ground turned muddy. It was a whole season in and of itself— the mud season—and we couldn't wait until it dried out. Then, it got so hot I could barely stand it. 

It was so hot it reminded me of the time, years beforehand, when I lived in Key West, Florida. The warm weather in the Keys was welcome after the blasts of winter cold that I had grown up with in Virginia, where I lived with my family until I was granted legal emancipation. That felt so good. Emancipation! Hallelujah. 

In the Keys, I ate a lot of key lime pie. That's what you do in the Keys. I was arrested once and then jailed for stealing a sandwich and a toothbrush. In the cell, one of my fellow inmates showed me how to make alcohol with fruit and sugar, then cover it up and let it cook. 

After 30 days I went to court. When the judge heard I was arrested for stealing a sandwich and a toothbrush he said, "a dentally hygienic thief! Let him go!" That was the worst jail I've ever been in, worse even then 850 Bryant in San Francisco. 

Winter in the Keys, I worked a bunch of different jobs, including one job where I sold hot pretzels to the tourists from all over the world who were there for winter break. Me and my pals had hurricane parties. We would strap down to the roof a few lawn chairs and ride out the wind and rain. After hurricane season, when I was bored, I would steal sunglasses and sell them to tourists. I played pool with them, too, and made a lot of money that way. My friend, Tony, would set me up. He'd look at a tourist and then point to me and say, "I bet that kid can kick your ass." I was a pro, but I'd say, "No, I don't want to play you and take your money." Tony would insist, "Oh, go, ahead." I played and played and kept on winning. I got 80% of the take and Tony got 20%, because he put up the original bet. 

Another time, I got into a debate with a guy who said that the barracudas in the water would eat me up before I could get away. He put up $20. I matched him and jumped into the water from a second story balcony. I lived to tell the tale. Got to shore before the barracudas took a bite of my flesh and collected the money from our bet.

In a lot of ways, Key West was paradise, but after a while I got homesick and called my dad. He said, "We love you, son. Come home." I took the bus to Virginia. My dad picked me up and brought me back home. I was still emancipated, but happy to be under the same roof as my parents and my brothers and sisters who wanted to know where I had been and what I had done. I told them a bunch of stories, embellishing and exaggerating here and there. I knew I wasn't going to stay long. It was just a pit stop. Then I split for the west where I had more adventures, learned to live with fire, rain, drought and smoke and learned, too, to live with land-greedy bastards like Bobby Dutcher who clear-cut acres and didn’t let it bother him, though it bothered me. I guess I'm a guy with a conscience.

(Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues: San Francisco, 1955.)

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