There was some things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another...
— Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
In the fall of 1971 I was about to be cut off at the knees if I didn't “do something productive” with my life. I was 17 and had been out of school for a year, a casualty of “dress code” politics. (I'd braided a foot-long eagle feather into my hair in honor of the first Native American Week, and when I refused to take it out, they kicked me out.) After a few months in Mexico, I'd wandered around collecting “life experiences.” But the folks were getting tired of wondering where the the West their VW bus was on any particular day, and lacking any better ideas I followed my younger brother, Michael, to Boonville where he was recently enrolled at AV High.
In those days, the days of principal Mel “Ace” Baker (who was very proud of being a retired USAF Lt. Col., though as my Dad pointed out, the Air Force always boosts an boosts an officer a grade at retirement, so he was probably never anything more than a Major and had never flown anything larger than a three-by-four desk until Merriman taught him.) Anyway, AV's main claim to fame was a flight training program. The program cost $2.75 to cover insurance, everything else was free. There was no auto shop, just aircraft maintenance. Dad being a big time airline pilot, Mel was delighted to have us — in fact, positively drolling at the prospect! My brother lived up to expectations. I was another story.
Mike boarded with the English teacher, whose name I don't recall. (I apologize; my memory for names is rotten. Where I remember a name, I'll tell.) I do remember that she made plum wine in a five-gallon jug and rented her house from Homer Mannix. Homer used to own the AVA, which at that time really was an “advertiser.” He didn't need any reporters to fill what little space was actually devoted to news, since he was Justice of the Peace, head of the school board (at the time, I think), and probably the Chamber of Commerce too. His wife owned the beauty shop, which covered the rest of the bases. I learned how to paint door trim with enamel in that beauty shop. I also nearly died while cleaning ten years worth of caked dust and hairspray off the tops of the cupboards.
I got lucky and was invited to board with the flight instructor himself, John Merriman, and his feisty wife, Erline, and their two kids. Me and Jock Love, a surfer dude from Manhattan Beach and a senior like me. We shared a cabin across the driveway from the main house, out on a ranch tucked against the hills just north of town. Hte bathroom in that cabin hung out over thhe creek, and a 2am visit to the can during the winter could be nerve-wracking. I had a nightmare once that I was puking out my guts and a half-gallon of Red Mountain, when the creek finally got high enough and me and the bowl tumbled all the way to Navarro. (At least I think I was dreaming.)
Merriman didn't have a tv, just a lot of Red Mountain, Day's Work and a banjo. I played an over-sized Mexican 12-string, and Jock played guitar and mandolin. Cheap burgundy by the tumbler-full and lots of music, that was the entertainment at the Merriman household. A certain cadre of AV teachers, all transplants from elsewhere and dependent on each other for intellectual stimulation, that being pretty much absent from the rest of the population, would frequently have get-togethers and pretend there really was a civilization. Jock and I would go along, playing our newest songs, flirting with the gals and drinking as much of the guy's booze as we could get away with.
I didn't enroll until well into October, and turned right around and flew off to Japan for family vacation. When we got back, the first thing that happened was Senior testing, sort of a practice SAT-type thing. I aced the tests, tests being my forte. I think the next highest scores were in the mid-eighties, except for Bonnie's. Bonnie's was another transplant who lived at Ideal City. For those who don't remember, Ideal City was the original Moonie settlement; the first, I believe, in the US. It was located in the hills behind where the new brewery just went up. Bonnie was beautiful even though she tried hard to seem mousy, and she was my only academic competition. Even so, we didn't actually end up competing much, since the only classes I ever attended were shop and ground-school. The rest of th time I spent practicing guitar or reading novels or hanging out by the hangar so I could get in some flight time if the regularly scheduled student didn't show up. My test scores had allowed me to bamboozle the academic teachers into giving me “independent” studies. And when I was feeling particularly cocky, I'd hang out on the lawn in the parking lot where all the other students could see me through the windows.
One other place I spent a lot of time was with the band. The music teacher was a retired house percussionist from Las Vegas, so of course this was a jazz band. Billy Holcomb played the drums, more or less, and we once put on a variety show for the student body. I remember I sang “King of the Road” and Don McClean's “Everybody Loves Me Baby (What's the Matter With You?),” among others. Another time, Billy and my brother Mike, Mel's stepson (can't remember his name either, even though I roomed with him at Shasta College), Gretchen, Mike's girlfriend from Peachland, Mallorie, the band teacher's daughter (another beauty with silver-blonde hair way down beyond there), and some other girl, put on a very intense play called “A House Divided,” about the Civil War. Teacher on a snare drum and me on the 12-string, playing background music while the others enacted vignettes and recited letters, news reports and other writings from the time. It was a subtle but powerful combination of “patriotism” and war in general. Public response was tepid in Boonville, but we got raves in Mendocino. (Figures)
One guy I hung out with was named Danny. Danny's hero was his big brother, a hard-core biker. Danny had a Harley that we spent a lot of time trying to keep running. When he finally, reluctantly, let me ride it, I went about 30 feet and drove it straight into Merriman's derelict hog-pen. Danny, understandably, never let me try again, but I was mostly embarrassed by the fact that Julie had been perched behind me. I had the hots for Julie and spent a few months and the Prom trying to get into her pants. I never did — she said her mom would kill her, and having met the woman, I believed her. I ended up having to go all the way to Laytonville to find carnal comfort.
Besides foolin' with the Harley, my other memories of Danny include long winter days in the hangar, replacing umpteen seals in the nose wheel struts of one or the other Cessna — student pilots tend to be real hard on nose wheel struts. We kept warm with a smudge pot. Danny'd chew and I'd smoke Camels, and the weather was usually so miserable that nobody would bother us all day. Danny got an occasional kick by temporarily capping the smudge pt and making it explode. He was always good for a mildly delinquent prank. The Redwood Drive-in was a real burger joint in those days, not the all-purpose multiplex it is today. And after school we'd grab something there, Danny invariably making the younger countergirls turn red by ordering a fur-burger with a side order of thighs.
Later in the year, I hung out with Wayne, who lived the other side of Philo, which is to say, I rode shotgun while he put as many hard 'n fast miles as he could on his '67 Challenger. Made the Boonville to Cloverdale run in 19 minutes one time, as I recall. I hooked him up with my little sister and they were an item for a while, until she fell for an older man. Wayne and I went to the stock car races in Lakeport sometimes. The big deal was after the races, when the Boonville contingent would drive to the top of the Hopland grade, get drunk, and then race down to Hopland (I mean really race), the loser bought the next case or two, and then it was back to Boonville, usually via Yorkville. The local stock car hangout was a little gas station near Gowan's Corner, nad more than once some tourist would actually try to buy gas there and would be told in no uncertain terms that not only was there no way to get anywhere near the pumps, but we're busy here and ain't got no time to pump no gas for no fuckin' tourists!
I had a handed-down '60 Ford station wagon that we affectionately called “The Tank,” and we ran it all over the place until one day I pole-vaulted the muffler. Never did replace that muffler, and spent a another few months driving it around with all the windows down, no matter what the weather, to avoid mass poisoning. Once I took the gang down to SF International to tour Pan Am. I don't remember if it was that time or some other time that Mike and I literally crashed a 707 simulator. We thought it would be fun to put it into a hard dive, and ended up busing all the motion hydraulics! “The Tank” eventually burned its valves to a crisp and I had to depend on others for rides.
Jock Love drove a Citroen jeep-like thing, made out of plastic and light enough that we didn't need a jack to change a tire. He had an after-school job at a vet's in Ukiah, and I occasionally went along for the ride. One time, we did a favor for a local and brought home his Saint Bernard after surgery to remove a foxtail from its ear. Flying back over the mountain while the giant, half-sleeve... damned dog made tthat little jeep so top-heavy, I was seriously concerned that we'd flip off any number of curves. Jock thought it was great fun and refused to slow below his usual break-neck speed. Another time, we were headed toward Ukiah for a Saturday shift and Opie (as we called the resident CHP, don't know if that was his real name) stopped us to fill his fix-it ticket quota. When I opened the glove box to get out the registration, two tall Buds fell onto my lap. Opie didn't even even blink while I put them back, and when he was finished writing the ticket he added some advice, to wit, “Tell you Dad to make sure he don't leave no beers in the glove box when he lends you the car.” Thank God he didn't take 'em away from us — it was a hot day to have to go all the way to Ukiah without refreshment.
Speaking of cops, one apocryphal tale I heard but never witnessed was that Opie and the resident Sheriff's deputy would play poker every Friday or Saturday night down at Philo, drinking whisky and smoking cigars. When the game was over, sometime after midnight, the two would race their cop cars back to Boonville. Somebody in Philo would call to Boonville to say they were off, and everyone would go out to watch the finish.
Brother Mike bought a WW2 army surplus Powerwagon and we'd go out in the woods with Don, who had a '47 International. Mike and Don would play one-upmanship with their trucks. “I can climb that hill up that thar' double-redwood!” ... “I can make it to that oak 20 feet further!” ... and off they'd go, while the rest of us sat in the shade and drank their beer. Don had the advantage because he had a winch and could to stupid shit like make the truck climbs trees with it. He finally ended the rivalry by crossing the Navarro at full flood. When the engine drowned, he got out, swam the winch cable the rest of the way, wrapped it around a tree, and hauled the truck on across. No way to top that!
Don was a big, a regular Lil' Abner. He was the first student to get his commercial pilot's license at AV. His family was known as a sort of backwoods type, and John Merriman told a story that when he took Don on his first cross-country flight to Sacramento, he had to teach him how to order lunch at the restaurant — the guy'd never been in one before! Don had a brother, Lester, who was big too, but in a horizontal way. One time Mike and he made an unauthorized landing in the sheep pasture below my folks' house in Freestone (busting the nose-strut, of course), and since the chances of getting the plane back into the air were a little iffy, I had to drive Lester back to Boonville!
Another unauthorized adventure was the time Mike and I took off at 4am (look Ma, no lights!) for a trip to Big Bend, in the mountains east of Redding. Right after take-off, some bearing in the tachometer started screaming. While Mike circled to gain altitude for the hop to Ukiah, I had to turn myself upside down, crawl up behind the control panel, and disconnect the cable. that stopped the screaming, and we continued on our merry way. After landing on a small, dead-end strip near Big Bend, surrounded by forest on three sides, with the only usable end dropping a hundred feet to the Pit River, we hiked into town and visited a couple of friends of mine. When we got back to the plane, three rednecks with rifles and mean looks wanted to know what the hell we were doing on their property. We got away by simply ignoring them and hurriedly putting a spinning propeller between us and them. Moments later, we glided off the edge of the cliff, our wheels leaving the ground scant yards before it disappeared.
Surplus stuff was also a favorite with “Ace” Baker. Something about having a flight program and being a public institution gave him the privilege of attending military surplus auctions, where he could (in the name of the school, of course) buy crates full of things for five or ten dollars a pop. One crate might have two thousand control cables, another 500 wiring harnesses. This stuff was mostly “spare parts” that the military always buys in advance. When the Air Force buys a plane, they're actually buying two or three — one that's assembled and ready to use, and another couple in “spare parts.” The biggest haul, besides the Navy Beech C-45 that we were forever rebuilding, was a $5 crate with 200 brand new Cessna 210 carburetors. Those suckers were worth over $600 apiece (in 1971 dollars!). Supposedly, the school had to hold on to them for five years before they could see them on the open market. I've always wondered what ever happened to them.
After “The Tank” died, I took to hitchhiking. Hitchhiking around the North Coast during those transition years that produced the “redneck hippie” was always an adventure. I never knew if I was gonna get a ride with some long-hair delivering 50 kilos of Mexican pot Albion (which really happened), or a tenth generation in-bred Arkie who'd spend the whole time wondering out loud if I wasn't really a girl and wouldn't I really like to suck his dick and maybe he oughta just pull over right here, haul the 30-30 down off the rack and blow my brains out (which also really happened).
Well, the rednecks pretty much lost the war, and that year saw the first “alternative” festival in Boonville (I forget what they called that, too.) Anti-war and pro-pot booths and rock & roll bands... man we stood that town on its ear! Me and Wayne volunteered to work as Boarps (Boont for “pig”; security-type trip), but that was mostly just a way to get in free and such up some of the staff's beer supply.
When graduation time rolled around, I hadn't bothered to complete any of my “independent” studies, and ol' man Baker thought he could screw me by refusing to graduate me. Everybody else, for one reason or another, thought that was a bad idea, so they got very creative and loaded my transcript with “life experience” credits (good ol' life experience!). I never got my pilot's license, due to having failed the physical, but that didn't bother me since I hated flying and thhe failed physical also meant that I was 4F. During my time in Boonville I won the Lions Club public-speaking contest (Education Today: What It Means To Me), learned to drink and puke great quantities of cheap wine, learned to talk Arkie, and generally had a great time. A year later, I once again followed in my little brother's footsteps and enrolled in the Aircraft Maintenance program at Shasta College. Also there were John Fox, Billy Holcomb, and whatsisname, Mel's stepson. After one semester, the instructors offered me a deal; they would give me an A if I never came back. I took the deal, as it would allow me more time to concentrate on my degree in debauchery. I went on to make good use of that degree.
When I set out to write this, I thought that if it was published I'd have to get an operation, change my name to Sharon, and move to Antarctica. I see now that I've mostly avoided offending anyone who counts (and frankly, I wish I could offend Mel more), so I won't feel too leery of visiting Anderson Valley again. Hell, I might even move back!