Mendocino County’s vastness has always been a force-and-violence kind of place where the cops are always at least thirty minutes away. You have to be prepared to defend yourself against violent people who’ve always operated, with impunity, and way outside the law.
One night I was waylaid by a soft man whose condition was unequal to his desire to do me harm. He’d popped me feebly on the side of my head as I walked out of a Boonville school board meeting where I’d said something he apparently didn’t like. I hit him straight on the point of his surprised jaw and down he went. I was sitting on top of him trying to make up my mind whether or not to hit him again when Deputy Simon drove up. “Why don’t you guys grow up?”
And that was that one.
What I'd said at the school board meeting was, “You can’t cut my kid’s hair.” The child was a future enforcer for the Black Guerrilla Family named Randy Alana, but at the time he was just a kid who wore his hair in a then-fashionable Afro. I was his legal guardian.
The hair issue had already been to the Supreme Court and it even applied to Boonville, although the school board hadn’t yet been informed. The Boonville School Board and its superintendent, Mel ‘Boom-Boom’ Baker, thought long hair on any non-female person was the first sign of disorder that might, if not forcibly checked, engulf all of Mendocino County, all of America, the world.
“If you touch the kid I’ll have you arrested for assault. I’ll sue you individually and I’ll sue your school district and you’ll lose,” I'd rattled righteously on, reading off legal decisions a lawyer friend had prepared for me. I even delivered a brief history of long hair in America back to the Founding Fathers, throwing in some asides about how silly it was to be having this discussion in 1971. As I was speaking, there were mutters behind me to “sit down and shut up.”
In reply, Superintendent Boom-Boom, reminded his school board of five glaring ranchers, four of whom had no hair at all, “I’ve seen these people hide knives and razors in those things,” which was Boom-Boom’s reference to the Afro as both hairstyle and weapons cache. “Our high school looks pretty good with the all the boys’ haircut and our school dress code keeping things neat, and I hope we keep it that way.”
Traditional Boonville was violently opposed to hippies, although quite a few locals were making money off the hippies, selling them logged over land in the hills the sellers thought was next to worthless, congratulating themselves on ripping off the newcomers, newcomers who were bringing new businesses and creative new energy into Boonville, and into all the dying little towns everywhere on the Northcoast.
The vote was 5-0 to enforce the school’s hair code, but they never enforced it on my guy, and I knew then that the only kids they dared push around were those kids who didn’t have anybody looking out for them. That was the night I got popped on the side of the head by the “old timer” as I left the room, and with my answering thunder punch I’d solidified my dubious reputation as point man for “hippies” of the fighting type.
Doubting the depth of Boom Boom’s black experience, I went to the school one day to talk to him privately about the hair issue, and to repeat my promise of big trouble for him and his school if he tried to cut my kid’s hair.
But I didn’t want to be at permanent war with the valley’s primary institution. I thought maybe I could cool Boom Boom out a little, talk him down, take a little percussion out of his drums.
The school secretary, the usual ultra-capable woman who runs most schools for 25% of the money the man gets who’s theoretically in charge, was Frances Lytle. “Mr. Baker is out back behind the gym, probably.” Her voice suggested that Mr. Baker spent a lot of time out in back of the gym because he didn’t have much else to do other than fulminate about long hair and be out back of the gym while Mrs. Lytle took care of school business.
I walked on out behind the gym to track him down. The gym was larger than all the school’s classrooms put together, an architectural statement of district priorities. And there he was, Anderson Valley’s educational leader, togged out in brown janitor’s khakis and throwing rocks at the barn swallow nests nestled in the gym’s eaves some 50 feet up.
The superintendent heaved a couple more futile stones skyward before turning to me.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said, immediately segueing into a monologue of his serially improbable life experience, including one seemingly improvised for the liberal he perceived me to be.
The unprepossessing man standing before me had been Satchel Page’s catcher and had been a personal friend of Dwight D. Eisenhower. I couldn’t help but enjoy the guy, but breaking into his monologue, I said gently, “Mr. Baker, you can’t cut the kid’s hair.”
Baker repeated his claim that he’d seen “razor blades up there.”
And on he went, with more chapters from his life’s book, none of them related to hair, occasionally pausing to heave a futile rock at a swallow’s nest. But I knew he wouldn’t try to cut the kid’s hair, and he never did.
The kid with the troubling Afro grew up to be a guy who would have hidden a bazooka in his hair if he thought there was tactical advantage to be gained, but in his Boonville incarnation the only thing up there was a hair pick.
Years later I picked up a Bay Area newspaper and read, “A man described by prosecutors as an enforcer for the Black Guerrilla prison gang strangled a trustee to death in the Oakland City Jail yesterday. Randy Alana, 6’7 and 270 pounds, reached through the bars of his cell and, before guards could break his grip on the trustee’s throat, strangled the man to death. Alana is awaiting trial for a murder he allegedly committed in federal prison.”
Randy had certainly been irritable as a child, but we couldn’t have expected such eminence as this from him. A killer among killers? Yes, he enjoyed hurting animals and the other boys, but so did his similarly doomed peers. Add chronic fire setting and bed wetting and most of our boys met the serial killer’s early child psychological profile. They all bore watching, and that’s what we were paid to do, that and containment.
In his youth, The Enforcer was fascinated by any loco-moted object, anything propelled by an engine. But by the time we’d resolved the hair question with Boonville’s school authorities in a way that was consistent with the law of the land, The Enforcer had been sent home to Oakland. “Family reunification” was the social work fantasy of the time, the assumption being that there was a family to be reunified with, not the incubators of dangerous youths these fragged families obviously were. If The Enforcer had been allowed to stay in one place long enough to consummate his fascination with automobile engines he might have grown up to become a talented, functioning mechanic.
“Reunification is in the best interest of this child,” the court order said, and the rest was the kid’s inevitable history.