Personal


With airlines becoming increasingly unpleasant — airport security treating passengers as suspected terrorists, flight attendants abusing fliers, and seats too close together to sit comfortably — there are better ways to travel.

Three weeks ago when Lynn and I traveled to Durango, Colorado, we saw no need to let an airline ruin an otherwise happy trip, so we didn’t. It was a good decision.

On the first part of our journey, we rode Amtrak from Emeryville to Grand Junction, Colorado.

Our roomette gave us space to stretch our legs and to sleep lying down. Unlike airlines that travel at roughly 30,000 feet, trains travel at ground level, and the scenery we passed through, such as this stretch of Utah desert, was spectacular.

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From Grand Junction, we drove almost 150 miles to Durango.

South of Ouray, Colorado, Highway 550 crosses Red Mountain Pass, and last year USA Today described that section of highway as one of the “world’s 12 most dangerous roads.”

As The Durango Herald reported while we were in town, it shares that distinction with the “Highway of Death in Iraq” and “Death Road” in Bolivia.

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“Red Mountain Pass, per mile, has the highest avalanche hazard on the North American Continent,” The Durango Herald added. “The narrow, two-lane road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below.”

While Amtrak locomotives, of course, burn diesel fuel, steam locomotives still burn coal. The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE), whose conference Lynn and I were attending, took an excursion on the 132-year-old Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad from Silverton to Durango. I had as much fun as a kid with a Lionel Train set.

While trains in general are rich in history, steam engines are especially rich in nostalgia — even for the trainmen. Our engineer, Mike Nichols (seen releasing extra water for making steam), has been on the run for 43 years.

The route of the Durango and Silverton Railroad provided spectacular scenery of its own. Some passenger cars on the train have traditional, enclosed seating while some are open-air for enhanced sightseeing.

You may recall Arlo Guthrie’s hit, The City of New Orleans, in which: “The conductor sings his song again: the passengers will please refrain….” The line may be an allusion to a ribald ditty that folk legend Oscar Brand popularized with a 1956 recording. Sung to the tune of Dvorak’s Humoresque, it begins: “Passengers will please refrain/ from flushing toilets while the train/ is in the station, Darling I love you….”

Toilets on trains traditionally dumped their sewage on the tracks, which was unpleasant for track workers and for anyone below a bridge the train was crossing. At the insistence of Congress, Amtrak between 1991 and 1996 installed holding tanks for sewage in all cars with restrooms. Likewise, the Durango and Silverton Railroad’s toilets no longer empty onto the tracks although its restroom sinks still do. ___________________________________________________________________

Like all the Amtrak crew members we encountered, Nathan, the attendant for our two-level passenger car, was friendly as well as efficient.

Not only did he maintain the car throughout its trip from Emeryville to its ultimate destination, Chicago, he converted our roomette seats to beds at night and back to seats in the morning.

He also provided passengers in his car with free coffee, juice, and snacks.

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A view of Utah from a window in the dining car.

Passengers in sleeper cars pay nothing extra for their meals, and Amtrak does not skimp on its fare. Steak and seafood were among the dinner entrées.

Travelers typically are seated with other travelers at tables in the dining car, and all the strangers Lynn and I ate with turned out to be pleasant, friendly folks. Train travelers, we soon realized, more easily socialize with each other than air travelers do.

Amtrak’s lounge car was great  for sightseeing, snacking, and socializing. Some passengers brought their computers there to work in pleasant surroundings.

Riding Amtrak provides a tour of numerous towns that remain part of the Old West. This is Truckee near Donner Pass over the Sierra Nevada.

Winnemuccca, Nevada.

Amtrak does not own the tracks it travels on, and our train rode on Union Pacific rails the entire way. Union Pacific freight trains have priority, and Amtrak trains have to sit on a siding or stay in a station whenever a freight comes along. As a result, Amtrak is almost never on schedule.

We spent an unscheduled 90 minutes in Winnemucca while waiting for the Union Pacific’s relief engineer and conductor to show up. The delay was no problem for Lynn and me. It just brought to mind the old Hank Snow song I’ve Been Everywhere, which begins with a trip to Winnemucca.

Airplane contrails high in the sky over the Utah desert. Eighty million years ago, the USGS website says, most of this area was covered by a warm, shallow, inland sea.

Seen from our Amtrak window, the Colorado River flows past Utah’s dramatic rock formations.

Ouray, Colorado

After enjoying a family get-together with my cousin Leck Mitchell and his wife Pat in Grand Junction, we embarked the next day on a mostly relaxed drive to Durango. Along the way, we stopped for lunch in the old mining town of Ouray. The city of only 1,000 residents is full of historic buildings and offers a variety of places to eat. __________________________________________________________________

South of Ouray, however, our drive over Red Mountain Pass became a challenge.

“Although the speed limit is 15 mph for much of Red Mountain Pass,” The Durango Herald noted, “more than 300 accidents took place there between 1995 and 2010.

“The majority occurred in dry conditions and involved only one vehicle. Eight accidents killed nine people, including five highway workers.”

The newspaper quoted Nancy Shanks, the local Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman, as saying, “It’s so scary it forces people to focus and slow down.”

Another reason there aren’t even more wrecks, a shopkeeper in Silverton theorized, is that there’s no cellphone reception going over the pass, so drivers don’t get distracted by texting as they skirt the precipices. ___________________________________________________________________

With no guardrails and — in many places — no shoulder between the asphalt and the edge of a cliff, the pass must be impassable for drivers bothered by vertigo.

Heidi Pankow, public relations manager for the Ouray Chamber Resort Association, told The Herald, “People stop in and ask, ‘Why are there no guardrails?’ We explain there’s no room because plows have to push the snow off the edge in winter. It’s definitely a topic that comes up a lot.”

The road is also known as the Million Dollar highway. However, “the origin of the ‘Million Dollar’ name is clouded in myth,” Road Trip USA has noted. “Some say it was first used after an early traveler, complaining of the vertigo-inducing steepness of the route, said, ‘I wouldn’t go that way again if you paid me a million dollars.’

“Others claim that it derives simply from the actual cost of paving the route in the 1930s. But the favorite explanation is also the most likely: when the highway was first constructed, the builders used gravel discarded by nearby gold and silver mines, only to find out later that this dirt was actually rich in ore and worth an estimated ‘million dollars.’”

Lynn prepares to board the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Silverton during the ISWNE excursion.

Silverton was born as a silver- and gold-mining town in 1874, and at one time Blair Street (pictured) was lined with 40 saloons and brothels that served the miners. Most of the old buildings are still standing, and the downtown area is now a National Historic Landmark District. With an elevation of 9,308 feet, the town has a summer population of around 600 but far less in winter.

The town’s 139-year-old newspaper, The Silverton Standard, is now a nonprofit owned by the San Juan Historical Society, which took it over five years ago when The Standard was about to go out of business. The paper is now marginally in the black, its editor, Mark Esper, told ISWNE members when we met with him in the old county courthouse.

In keeping with Silverton’s rakish past, the town council is now considering modifying its zoning to allow a retail marijuana shop just east of downtown, The Standard reported while we were in town. Current zoning would already allow a marijuana-growing facility in the area, the paper noted.

ISWNE members gaze at the scenery as the narrow-gauge railroad crosses the San Juan Mountains en route to Durango.

Train conductors warn passengers not to stick their heads or arms out the window during the ride. The train passes so close to rocks and trees a passenger could easily bang into them.

Like the “Highway to Hell,” the train route in places winds along the edge of cliffs. The precipices, however, seem far less daunting when riding on a train than when driving above them in a car.

Air travel too, of course, includes a lot of looking down from high places, and that makes some people even more queasy. All in all, Lynn and I found traveling by train and car far preferable to flying, and the scenery was immensely better.

As last week’s posting noted, our destination was an annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, which this year was in Durango. I was there to give a talk and receive ISWNE’s Eugene Cervi Award, and these were the highlights of our trip. But getting there, around, and back was great fun too.

My life companion Lynn Axelrod and I have just returned from Durango, Colorado, where we attended an annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors at Fort Lewis College.

Two posts will deal with our adventures. The second will concern transportation, ranging from driving “the highway to hell” (in the words of the Durango Herald) to travel by old-fashioned steam engine and modern Amtrak. Because this first post deals with my receiving a journalism award, I’ve let Lynn prepare it.

Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, opened in 1891 as a boarding school for Native American Indians and remained so until the 1930s when it became a two-year college. In 1956, it was relocated from the town of Hesperus to its present location 18 miles to the east and became a four-year college. Under federal law, Indian students attend it tuition free. (Photo by Tim Waltner, member of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors and publisher of the Freeman Courier in South Dakota)

By Lynn Axelrod

The highest international award in the English-speaking world for editing a weekly newspaper went to Dave Mitchell of Point Reyes Station last week.

Mitchell, 70, who retired in November 2005, edited and published The Point Reyes Light for 27 years. On June 28, Mitchell received the award in Durango, Colorado, during the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE).

Editors from throughout the United States and Canada, as well as from England, Scotland, and Australia, were on hand.

Mitchell’s “Eugene Cervi Award” is named after the late editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain Journal in Denver, where some Colorado politicians once called the liberal newspaperman “the most dangerous man in Denver.”

Eugene Cervi (at left)

After he died in 1970, “the New York Times described Cervi as ‘one of the most outspoken voices in American journalism,’” ISWNE executive director Chad Stebbins has written.

The Eugene Cervi award recognizes “a newspaper editor who has consistently acted in the conviction that ‘good journalism begets good government.’

“The award is presented not for a single brave accomplishment, however deserving, but for a career of outstanding public service through community journalism and for adhering to the highest standards of the craft with the deep reverence for the English language that was the hallmark of Gene Cervi’s writing.

“The award also recognizes consistently aggressive reporting of government at the grassroots level and interpretation of local affairs.”

Chad Stebbins (left), executive director of ISWNE, and Mitchell standing with the Eugene Cervi Award, which is represented by a street-vendor “Newsman.”

Although the four-day conference was held in Colorado this year, ISWNE’s annual conferences are often held abroad: Calgary, Alberta, 1994; London, Edinburgh, Cardiff & Dublin, 1995; Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1999; Victoria, British Columbia, 2000; Galway, Ireland, 2003; Edmonton & Fort McMurray, Alberta, 2005; Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, 2009; Coventry, England, 2011. In 2016, the group will head to Australia.

In 1979 when Mitchell and his former wife Cathy published The Light, the newspaper received the Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service. It was only the fourth year since the prizes were established in 1917 that any Pulitzer had gone to a weekly newspaper.

The prize was for an investigation and editorial crusade warning about violence and other illegal activities by the Synanon cult. Synanon, which officially dissolved in 1991, was headquartered on Tomales Bay in Marshall during much of the 1970s.

Mitchell’s new book, The Light on the Coast, which was coauthored by Jacoba Charles, includes key articles and opinion pieces about Synanon. Using news stories published when events occurred, The Light on the Coast tells the history of West Marin since the paper’s founding in 1948. At ISWNE’s request, Mitchell gave an hour-long talk on Synanon and other stories from the book. The Light’s reports on five waves of ethnic immigration to West Marin beginning in the 1850s were a major part of his talk.

Fort Lewis College, which is named after Lt. Col William Lewis, a hero of the Union Army in the Civil War, is in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado at 6,872 feet in elevation. It borders wildlands, and a small herd of mule deer graze the campus undisturbed.

Nominating Mitchell for the award were San Francisco Chronicle reporter and columnist Carl Nolte, retired Santa Fe Reporter editor and publisher Richard McCord, and California Newspaper Publishers Association executive director Thomas Newton.

Newton praised Mitchell for trying to make The Light the “New York Times of West Marin” and for his “swashbuckling journalism for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner, including trips to El Salvador and Guatemala to cover the upheaval and insurrection of the time [1982-83].”

Commenting on Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning reporting Nolte wrote, “Synanon was very tough. Big city papers went after the organization but were scared off by threats of lawsuits…. But nobody and no lawsuit could stop The Light.”

He added, “Don’t think The Light is a one-trick pony…. Mitchell has taken on the Park Service, which runs the [Point Reyes] National Seashore with an iron hand…. He has also followed the immigration patterns on the land, from the now nearly vanished Miwok Indians to newer people…”

Richard McCord (seen introducing Mitchell at ISWNE’s awards banquet) is best known nationally for his 1996 book The Chain Gang, which exposed the Gannett newspaper chain’s illegal efforts to drive competitors out of business.

In his letter of nomination, McCord focused on The Light’s Synanon exposé: “Despite warnings that he might… be in physical danger, Dave Mitchell continued writing about Synanon in stories and editorials.”

During the awards dinner, Mitchell told the crowd he had “thought he was fading away like the old soldiers cited by Gen. Douglas MacArthur in his farewell speech to Congress,” ISWNE’s June 29 newsletter reported. “To me this is like winning a second Pulitzer. It had been so many years since I had put on a tie, I couldn’t remember how to tie it.”

After my former wife Cathy Mitchell and I went our separate ways in 1981, she began teaching at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and became the school’s first full-time professor of Mass Communications. She earned a doctorate at the University of Tennessee and with an Economics professor, Pamela Nickless, founded UNC’s Women’s Studies program.

In 1995, she wrote a book about the pioneering newswoman Margaret Fuller, who had worked for Horace Greeley at The New York Herald Tribune beginning in 1844. I’ve read the book, Margaret Fuller’s New York Journalism, which is first rate. Five years ago, Cathy published another book that I only just now had a chance to read.

(After my book, The Light on the Coast: 65 Years of News Big and Small as Reported in The Point Reyes Light, was published at the end of last year, she and I traded books cross country.)

Cathy’s latest book is called Save a Spaniel, and like Franz Kafka’s story Investigations of a Dog, it’s told in the first person (first animal?) by a canine narrator.

Kafka’s dog spends its time contemplating the nature of existence but pays no attention to the role of man.

In his world, humans don’t feed dogs. Rather dogs through incantation, dance, and song “call down” food “from above.”

Unlike Kafka’s dog, the Boykin spaniel named Star, who narrates Cathy’s book, is fixated on how to get along with humans.

She is terrified when she angers humans, whom she calls “leaders,” rejoices when one calls her a “good dog,” and is ecstatic when one gives her a treat of yummy food.

Now retired, Cathy volunteers with Boykin Spaniel Rescue and has a spaniel of her own named Lily (seen below with Cathy in a Verve Magazine photo). Lily inspired her story, Cathy notes, “but this book is a work of fiction.”

Star is a dog that every leader calls “pretty,” but she requires training. She pees indoors when she’s scared, and she lightly nips leaders a couple of times.

Rather than train her, first one family and then another puts her up for adoption.

The first time it happens, an animal shelter comes close to having her euthanized.

Finally, a woman with more patience adopts Star, takes her to obedience school, and eventually trains her how to stay out of trouble.

Although she likes to chase rabbits, Star ultimately saves a pet rabbit she finds injured in the woods, and this cements her reputation as a “good dog.”

“No one dog could have as many adventures as little Star does,” Cathy writes in the book’s acknowledgements. “However, my Lily really did save a pet rabbit’s life.”

Sonora, 1971. Cathy (upper right) sitting with Bruce McKenzie of Berkeley and his wife Brigitta while I hold Andy.

Although she doesn’t mention it, I’m fairly certain one of Star’s other adventures is based on another dog in Cathy’s life.

When Cathy and I lived in Sonora, she teaching at Columbia Junior College and me reporting for The Daily Union Democrat, we got a cockapoo from the Berkeley pound.

A cross between a spaniel and a poodle, she looked like a small sheep dog. We named her Andromache after the wife of Hector in the Trojan War, but we called her Andy for everyday purposes.

One day Andy and the neighbor’s dog spotted a rattlesnake in our carport. When the neighbor’s dog started to inspect the snake, I quickly pulled the dog away only to have Andy get close enough to be bit.

Cathy and I rushed Andy to a veterinarian who didn’t sound particularly concerned. He didn’t administer any serum but did give her a shot of antibiotics. You never know what the last thing was that snake bit, he said.

With some uncertainty, we took Andy home. A goiter the size of an orange had formed on her neck, and she appeared to be drugged. It took a couple of days for her to recover, but she did.

In the book, Star is similarly bit by a rattlesnake and is taken to a vet who says almost word for word what the vet in Sonora had told us. Star too recovers. Cathy notes she discussed snake-bitten dogs with veterinarians at All Pets Animal Hospital, but Andy must have provided the inspiration.

The dominant theme of Save a Spaniel is the problem dogs and humans have understanding each other, but the problem can be solved. By the end of the book, Star has evolved into a therapy dog that regularly visits an old folks home where everybody wants to spend time with her, and she wants to spend time with everybody.

Save a Spaniel is an excellent book, and I’m hardly the first reviewer to say so. It’s available from Amazon for $13.46.

During an open house and reunion Saturday, a happy throng of Point Reyes Light readers, staff, and columnists joined with former staff and correspondents to celebrate the 66th anniversary of the newspaper’s first issue.

The reunion drew staff and contributors who had worked at the paper at different times during the past 44 years. A number of former staff traveled hundreds of miles to attend. A couple of them arrived from out of state.

From left: Laura Lee Miller, David Rolland (who drove up from San Diego), Cat Cowles, Wendi Kallins, Janine Warner (who drove up from Los Angeles), Elisabeth Ptak (back to camera), Gayanne Enquist, Art Rogers (talking with Elisabeth), Keith Ervin (who drove down from Seattle), B.G. Buttemiller, and (in blue shirt with back to camera) Víctor Reyes. (Photo by Dave LaFontaine) ______________________________________________________________

The party was also a celebration of the Tomales Regional History Center’s publishing The Light on the Coast: 65 Years of News Big and Small as Reported in The Point Reyes Light.

Stuart Chapman of Bolinas, a former member of the staff, shot this photo, which he titled “Dave, Proud Father” because I authored the book.

My co-author was Jacoba Charles. Jacoba reported for The Light under its previous ownership and is a member of the paper’s board of directors under its present ownership, Marin Media Institute.

The colored Post-its, by the way, mark selections that I, along with others, would be reading to attendees. ____________________________________________________________

From left: Co-author Jacoba Charles, photographer Art Rogers, scientist Corey Goodman, photographer David Briggs, editorial consultant on the book and former member of The Light’s ad department Lynn Axelrod, and Spanish-language columnist Víctor Reyes. (Except where noted otherwise, the photos in this posting were shot by former Light reporter Janine Warner)

Michael Gahagan (left), who drove down from the Sierra Nevada town of Columbia to attend, published The Light from 1970 to 1975. Here he reminisces with historian Dewey Livingston of Inverness. Dewey for many years provided a weekly historical feature titled “West Marin’s Past.”

During the Gahagan years, Lee Sims (left) was the newspaper’s main typographer. This was back in the days before offset printing, and each page that went on the press had to be composed in lead.

In a piece written for The Light’s 30th anniversary in 1978 and reprinted in The Light on the Coast, Michael Gahagan’s former wife Annabelle comments, “Poor Lee, he had the disadvantage of being a friend of ours. One can always depend on friends — and we did lean on him! He was always underpaid and overworked. (Weren’t we all?)”

Catching up on old times are (in foreground from left): former news editor David Rolland, who drove to the reunion from San Diego, former typesetter Cat Cowles of Inverness, and former reporter Joel Reese, who flew in from Chicago. Standing behind them are current reporter Christopher Peak (left) and Matt Gallagher, who filled in as managing editor from February through July 2011. _____________________________________________________________

Samantha Kimmey (on the left) has been a reporter at The Light for the past year. With her is Tess Elliott of Inverness, who has been The Light’s editor for the past eight years   ____________________________________________________________

Gayanne Enquist was office manager during much of the 27 years I owned The Light. She was there when I arrived in July 1975, and she was there when I left in November 2005. (I was away reporting for the old San Francisco Examiner between September 1981 and the end of 1983.)

Former reporter Michelle Ling trades stories with Don Schinske, who was business manager during the 1990s and was co-publisher from 1995 to 1998. At left is her father, Dr. Walter Ling who teaches at UCLA. With his wife, May, Dr. Ling drove to Point Reyes Station for the celebration. In the background, Mary Papale listens intently to Laura Rogers.

Ingrid Noyes of Marshall (left) tells a story to my co-author, Jacoba Charles, outside The Light office.

Former staff recall the days of yore. From left: artist Laura Lee Miller, news editor David Rolland, typesetter Cat Cowles, reporter Janine Warner, and San Geronimo Valley correspondent Wendi Kallins. (Photo by Dave LaFontaine)

Sarah Rohrs was a reporter at The Light in the late 1980s. When several of us took turns reading aloud selections from The Light on the Coast, I read Sarah’s wonderfully droll account of a county fireman in Hicks Valley having to get a cow down out of a tree. (Photo by Joe Gramer)

Larken Bradley (left), who formerly wrote obituaries for The Light, chats with librarian Kerry Livingston, wife of Dewey.

Photographer Janine Dunn née Collins in 1995 traveled with news editor David Rolland to Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino and to war-torn Croatia in doing research for The Light’s series on the five waves of historic immigration to West Marin. Here she chats with the paper’s current photographer David Briggs (center) and her husband John Dunn.

Former Light graphic artist Kathleen O’Neill (left) discusses newspapering in West Marin with present business manager Diana Cameron. _____________________________________________________________

Former Light reporter Marian Schinske (right) and I wax nostalgic while photographic contributor Ilka Hartmann (left), looks on and Heather Mack (center), a graduate student in Journalism at UC Berkeley, takes notes. ____________________________________________________________

Former news editor Jim Kravets (left) jokes with photographer Art Rogers.

John Hulls of Point Reyes Station and Cynthia Clark of Novato have in the past worked with The Light in various capacities. In 1984, Cynthia set up the first computer system for the newsroom and ad department.

From left: Stuart Chapman of Bolinas, who formerly worked in The Light’s ad department, swaps stories with journalist Dave LaFontaine of Los Angeles and Light columnist Víctor Reyes.

Historian Dewey Livingston (left), a former production manager at The Light, poses with former news editor David Rolland while former business manager Bert Crews of Tomales mugs in the background.

In preparing to shoot one of his signature group portraits, Art Rogers directs members of the crowd where to stand. With the throng crowded into the newspaper office, getting everyone in the right place to be seen was such a complicated operation that some of the photographer’s subjects began photographing him. _____________________________________________________________

In shooting a series of three-dimensional photos, Art had to use a tall tripod and balance precariously on a window ledge and ladder.               _____________________________________________________________

Art’s wife, Laura, who didn’t have to work nearly as hard, pages through a copy of The Light on the Coast. _______________________________________________________________

The party was in part a book-signing, and I signed copies off and on all afternoon. ______________________________________________________

Light editor Tess Elliott reads Wilma Van Peer’s 1998 account of working for the paper’s founders, Dave and Wilma Rogers half a century earlier. The newspaper was called The Baywood Press when it began publishing in 1948. The paper’s fourth publisher, Don DeWolfe, changed the name to Point Reyes Light in 1966.

Originally the readings were scheduled to be held in the newspaper office, but so much socializing was going on they had to be delayed until the party moved around the corner to Vladimir’s Czech Restaurant where the banquet room had been reserved.

Among those reading besides Tess were Dewey Livingston, David Rolland, Matt Gallagher, and I. Anyone wishing to watch me read former publisher (1957 to 1970) Don DeWolfe’s account of his initiation to running the paper can click here.

It was a grand party, and I want to thank present Light staff, who made arrangements for the party, and former staff, some of whom traveled significant distances to attend the reunion.

Two other book readings are also scheduled. At 3 p.m. Sunday, March 9, in Point Reyes Presbyterian Church, Point Reyes Books will sponsor readings from The Light on the Coast and from Point Reyes Sheriff’s Calls, Susanna Solomon’s book of short stories inspired by Sheriff’s Calls in The Light.

At 4 p.m. Sunday, April 27, in its Corte Madera store, Book Passage will sponsor readings from The Light on the Coast. Refreshments will be served.

I was raised by Christian Science parents in Berkeley and attended Berkeley High School, but in the middle of my junior year I abruptly transferred to a boarding school in St. Louis. The story of how that came about illustrates what a teenager is capable of doing out of fear.

As a 16 year old, I often chafed at parental restrictions on my driving and staying out late, but at Berkeley High, I earned good grades in most subjects. Advanced Latin, however, proved to be a step too far. One afternoon in the fall of 1959, I went directly home after school in order to spend extra time studying for a Latin test only to realize the battle was lost. Given my grades so far, it was impossible for me to pass advanced Latin.

It was a frightening thought. I had never received less than a C in any class, and that alone had brought down my parents’ wrath. I had been grounded and had my allowance cut for a month. What might happen when I brought home an F was too awful to imagine.

It was obvious I couldn’t still be living at home when report cards came out. But what to do? Suddenly I remembered a Christian Science high school my parents had mentioned in glowing terms. It was called Principia and was safely located 1,800 miles away in St. Louis. I feared the school might be overly religious, but anything was better than facing my parents with an F in Latin.

I got up from my desk and went looking for my mother, who was in the kitchen cooking dinner. “I want to go to Principia,” I announced. My mother was startled, but given the pressures of trying to raise a headstrong teenager, she didn’t oppose my request. Instead, she took it up with my father, and a week before Berkeley High mailed home my grades for the fall semester, I boarded a train for Missouri, having no idea what I would find.

At Principia, where football players were generally smaller than at Berkeley High, I was big enough to play offensive tackle. I’m No. 74 in the middle of the back row. Because Principia’s sports program was far more modest than Berkeley High’s, I was able to letter in both football and track during my three semesters in St. Louis.

Principia Upper School had a newly opened, suburban campus on Clayton Valley Road, and the place had the pleasant charm of brick buildings and expansive lawns. Its religious atmosphere was about the same as in my home back in Berkeley.

A few days after I had been assigned a room and roommate, I got a call from my much-distressed parents. They had received my report card from Berkeley High and discovered I’d flunked Latin. How could I have done so badly when I’d been assuring them I was doing okay in Latin? “I’m as surprised as you,” I replied with feigned concern. “I must have blown the final exam. Everything seemed fine before then.”

My parents started scolding, but I interrupted to say I was being called away to Sunday dinner. Reluctantly, they said goodbye and hung up. In fact, there was nothing going on — other than my jubilation at being beyond their reach.

I sometimes practiced high jump barefoot. At Berkeley High, good jumpers were able to clear six feet. My best jump at Principia was five feet, six inches, but when I made it, that was enough to win the event, which was the last of the day in a track meet with John Burroughs Academy. When the high jumping finally got underway late that afternoon, each school’s total points happened to be the same, so my not-so-high jump won the meet for Principia.

Berkeley High had taught most courses a bit earlier than Principia did, so I frequently was already familiar with subjects when they came up in class. Nor did Prin offer any Latin. As a result, I was one of the top three students in my graduating class.

All this helped get me into Stanford University where circumstances eventually forced me to again take Latin. This time, however, my grades were three A’s and two B’s. Ironically, it was my best subject as an undergraduate. How could that be?

First, thanks to my classes at Berkeley High, I was already familiar with basic Latin. Second, the night before each final, I sat down with a Latin-English dictionary and practiced translating passages from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, The Aeneid, etc. The passages were typically ones the professor had emphasized in class, and I figured some of them were likely to be on the exam. That quickly turned out to be true. Three times I managed, with the help of a dictionary, to translate every passage on a final exam just before I took it. My flight from Latin was over.

Today is my 69th birthday; that is, I am now in my 70th year. I can claim to officially be an old codger. I have outlived my mother. My beard has turned white; it’s Nature’s way of awarding me a combat ribbon for having thus far survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

My birthday was sunny and warm. The roads of West Marin were jammed with tourists. Tonight, however, is chilly — 48ºF at the moment — but that’s outdoors.  Inside Mitchell cabin, a fire in the woodstove is warming the start of my 70th year.

Give a turkey an inch and it’ll take a mile? It is traditional for US Presidents to “pardon” a turkey so that it escapes the fate of the other 45 million turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving, which happened to be yesterday. All the same, I was a bit startled to see both of these headlines on the same screen when I checked Google News on Wednesday.

Of course, the bird takes its name from the nation although the two have nothing to do with each other. You can read an earlier posting explaining how this came about by clicking here.

Just before Turkey Day, as some people call Thanksgiving, a flock of 29 wild turkeys crossed my field in a long line.

Turkeys are native to North America but not to West Marin. Working with the California Department of Fish & Game, a hunting club in 1988 introduced the local wild turkeys on Loma Alta Ridge, which overlooks the San Geronimo Valley. The original flock of 11 hens and three toms all came from a population that Fish & Game had established in the Napa Valley during the 1950s.

Tom turkeys strut and display their feathers for a group of hens.

Wild-turkey hunting, however, has dropped off significantly in recent years, and in some parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, wild turkeys are becoming a problem not only in gardens but also on roadways. NBC Bay Area reported yesterday: “One bicyclist died when he crashed in Martinez trying to avoid a flock of the birds, according to [The Contra Costa Times]. A motorcyclist wrecked but survived when a turkey hit him on Interstate 680 last year.”

Gary Titus of Tomales has told me of driving a truck and trailer in the Two Rock area when a wild turkey suddenly flew out in front of him. The bird hit his windshield with wings spread, totally blocking his view. Gary slammed on his brakes. The truck and trailer jack-knifed and spun 180 degrees but somehow managed to stay on the road; however, tires were flattened by the skid. As for the bird, friends had roast turkey for dinner that night.

A tom turkey keeps a watchful eye on his harem.

Making sure the hens don’t wander off.

With the dominant male gobbling, the toms tend to stay in groups, often with their tail feathers spread and their wings dragging on the ground, as they strut for the hens. The tom in the foreground (without its tail fanned) was unfortunately reduced to hopping on one foot and had a hard time keeping up with the flock.

I have no idea, of course, how his other foot got injured. If he was attacked, he probably would have appreciated being armed with one of those NATO missiles.

In the last couple of weeks, I have received two emails from women who survived crises where they live. One incident in particular could have easily had a far worse outcome.

The youngest stepdaughter from my last marriage, Shaili, who will turn 18 next month, lives in Guatemala. Her location sometimes worries me even though her home is in a good neighborhood of the capital, Guatemala City.

Unfortunately, the country has become so dangerous for women and girls — an average of two are murdered each day — that the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco last year ruled immigration judges must consider that fact when deciding whether to grant asylum to Guatemalan women. The country’s murder rate is 3.5 times the rate in violence-plagued Mexico, The New York Times reported last July.

Shaili reading by my woodstove two years ago.

On Feb. 3, Shaili wrote me, “I usually don’t walk in the streets near my house anymore, but yesterday afternoon seemed like a pretty day. I decided to leave my cell phone in the house — just in case. I went to my friend Alvaro’s house and spent the whole afternoon there.

“We were walking back to my house at about 6:20 p.m., so it was getting pretty dark. Alvaro never lets me walk home alone. Anyway, during our way to my house, I had many ‘bad feelings’ when seeing some people, a particular car etc. Something just didn’t feel right.

“I was very close to my house when an all-black car pulled over, and two men came out. The car quickly left, and when I saw the look on the men’s faces, I knew they were going to try to mug me, which was precisely what happened.

“The two men walked over to us and showed us their guns. They told us to give them everything we owned. Luckily, as I said, I was having a bad feeling that day, so I had put my money inside my underwear. I told the guy that I didn’t have anything.

“He heard a jingle in my pocket and asked, ‘Are you SURE you don’t have anything?’ I took four quetzales [the equivalent of 50 cents] out and said, ‘Would you like four quetzales?’ I couldn’t help sounding a bit mocking, just so he would feel stupid. He said no.

“Then the other guy told Alvaro and me to head back towards where we came from. I refused to do that, of course, because I refused to walk in the direction that I knew they were going. I was just so terrified at that moment that I didn’t think. So I said, ‘No, I live here!’

“This was so stupid of me, but the good thing is that I never really specified where I lived, but they now know I live close by. Anyway, they let me go, so I ran until I got to my house. I had never felt as scared. My legs were trembling.

“When I ran straight to my house, I accidentally forgot about Alvaro, but then I turned around, and he had already crossed the street to the other side, so I yelled for him to come, and he did.

“Alvaro’s cap got stolen, and it had sentimental value to him, but he wasn’t as affected as I was because it had happened to him before. For me, it was new and just very scary.

“I cried a lot after that because I was scared. Nothing really happened to me, and nothing of mine got stolen, but still I just hate to think I actually came face to face with two men who are exactly the reason why Guatemala is in such a disgusting situation.

“I had trouble sleeping the nights after that because I kept on dreaming about it,” Shaili later told me. “Now I feel much better. I’m just very paranoid right now. As always, I am being very cautious when leaving the house, and I definitely won’t ever walk here again.”

Second story: A Jan. 25 posting on this blog concerning Facebook prompted a Feb. 9 email from Sheila Castelli, formerly of Point Reyes Station and now living in Taos, New Mexico.

“I saw this post on the Taos Police Department Facebook page,” she wrote, “and chuckled and thought of your blog post. ‘Crews are at Wal Mart,'” the police noted, “‘and will follow you home to get you lit up. Let everyone know.’

“Here is the context. We in Taos County are coming to the end of a non-natural disaster,” Sheila (at right) wrote.

“Since last Thursday [Jan. 20] there has been no natural gas here. The gas supply was intentionally shut off by New Mexico Gas as a preemptive move to save the gas supply in other parts of the state.

“Temperatures here at night have been well below zero.”

The Feb. 10 Taos News explained, “Early last week, El Paso Natural Gas — the company that oversees one of the pipelines from the Permian Basin for New Mexico Gas Company — said it was stockpiling as much gas as it could in anticipation of the frigid weather….

“When it became apparent that the gas supply was dwindling, New Mexico Gas Company said it advised large consumers like the Questa mine and Los Alamos National Labs to cut back gas usage. Other major gas users across the state were also asked to reduce operations. But it wasn’t enough.

“With almost no warning, the gas was disconnected in 14 communities across the state….

“It wasn’t just a matter of pipeline physics. At some point, a decision was made to shut the valve serving rural communities. In an emailed statement to The Taos News, New Mexico Gas Company said it had to move fast when deciding who would be cut off.

“‘The decision to shut off the gas line valve to Española, Taos, Questa, Red River and other northern New Mexico towns was made quickly because the actual valves were in areas accessible and were able to be shut down quickly.'”

Sheila wrote, “I heard of the gas outage on the radio here, and I also heard they were opening a Red Cross shelter. As I have trained as a shelter manager, I called and offered my services. Trinidad, the Red Cross head here, was overjoyed as Taos had never opened a shelter here before.

“So I have been at the shelter since then. I dragged myself home yesterday.

“All the gas meters had to be shut off until the lines were re-pressurized, then all homes visited and [pilot lights] re-lit.

“The National Guard have been here in full force, along with plumbers from all over the country, and they were very perplexed with Taos’ crazy roads and streets. They thought they had been to every home, but it appeared that only 54 percent were back with gas.

“They just couldn’t find a lot of these homes, so they were at Wal Mart, and people were supposed to go grab a crew and lead them to their homes.

“Luckily I don’t use natural gas, so I was fine, but I attended to many freezing folks coming into the shelter. I met lots of new people from the mayor to the homeless and spent several hours playing cards with Taos policemen.”

Sheila wrote that helping others at the shelter was “good therapy for me,” and Shaili wrote that her frightening experience “taught me a good lesson: whenever I have a gut feeling or some kind of intuition, I need to trust it.”

Neither of them expected she’d have to cope with a crisis, but both came away stronger for having done so.

Back in the days of the Vietnam War, we young men would warily watch our mailboxes for letters from the President. Too many friends had already received letters that began, “Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States.”

Today I received an official letter almost as chilling. In celebration of my upcoming 67th birthday, wrote California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, I must renew my driver’s license “on or before [its] expiration date…. [of] 11/23/2010.”

Your last two renewals have been by mail,” the governor wrote on behalf of the Department of Motor Vehicles. “The law requires you to now renew at a DMV office. If your physical description or address on this notice is incorrect, please make the necessary changes.”

Clearly incorrect was the address the governor used to reach me, that of The Point Reyes Light. I’ll have to change it.

As for my height, alas I’ve shrunk a bit from my 6-foot, 4-inch days. I now have to stand really straight just to hit 6-3, and as for 185 pounds, I’ve lost more than 15 of them in the last five years. (To paraphrase General MacArthur, old newsmen never die. Their layouts just get tighter.)

Nor did it seem entirely fair that the DMV required me to renew my car’s registration just weeks before before determining whether I am eligible to drive it. What if I fail my vision test? Or forget when the speed limit is 70 mph?

All my life I have found driver’s license tests unnerving — perhaps because I flunked the first one I took back in high school. The man giving me the test directed me to drive through a construction zone, and when we came to an intersection, I stopped at the crosswalk rather than at a stopsign sticking haphazardly out of a pile of dirt. Wrong decision.

Luckily, when I taught college for two years in Iowa and then reported for Council Bluff’s daily newspaper, The Nonpareil, the State of Iowa simply issued me a driver’s license based on my having one from California. I guess the Iowa Division of Motor Vehicles figured that anyone who could survive the freeways of Los Angeles could handle the farm roads of the Hawkeye State.

However, when I returned to California and began reporting for Sonora’s daily newspaper, The Union Democrat, this state required me to take a behind-the-wheel driving test to get a new license.

I showed up for the test nervous as a cat. With a woman from the DMV directing me where to go, we drove all over Sonora. If we turned a corner, I used arm signals as well as blinkers. In fact, I used arm signals when I merely slowed down.

This time there were no problems, and we returned to the DMV office where I was told to sign more papers and have my photo taken. Next to a stripe painted on the floor of the photo area, a sign said it was important that my feet were exactly on it.

Still nervous, I bent over and carefully positioned my toes exactly on the stripe. However, just as I was straightening up, I heard a perplexed DMV photographer say, “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to turn around and face the camera.” For the next several years, my driver’s license photo showed me with bright red ears.

Beat poet and literary critic Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82) of San Francisco back in the 1960s wrote a column called Classics Revisited for the now-defunct Saturday Review. In the spirit of Rexroth’s column, I myself would now like to revisit a modern classic.

In 1970, the poet W.H. Auden published A Certain World: a Commonplace Book. Auden (1907-73) was born and educated in England but in 1946 became a US citizen. Many people consider him one of the best poets of the last century.

Incredibly well read, Auden over the years collected telling quotations from numerous sources, and his commonplace book presents them arranged by topic in alphabetical order.

The poet said he compiled the book instead of writing his memoirs because “biographies of writers, whether written by others or themselves, are always superfluous and usually in bad taste…. [A writer’s] private life is, or should be, of no concern to anybody except himself, his family, and his friends.” Nonetheless, A Certain World is revealing as to what influenced, interested and amused Auden.

Some thoughts on money, for example:

• “You will never find people laboring to convince you that you may live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.” — Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84), English essayist and lexicographer

“Many priceless things can be bought.” — Baroness Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916), Austrian writer

• “Two evenings spent at La Scala, Milan, one of them standing up, the other sitting down. On the first evening, I was continually conscious of the existence of the spectators who were seated. On the second evening, I was completely unaware of the spectators who were standing up (and of those who were seated also).” — Simone Weil (1909-43), French philosopher and social activist, seen at right

• “I am not sure just what the unpardonable sin is, but I believe it is a disposition to evade the payment of small bills.” — Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915), American writer and publisher

• “If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.” — Yiddish proverb

On forgiveness:

• “Many promising reconciliations have broken down because, while both parties came prepared to forgive, neither party came prepared to be forgiven.” — Charles Williams (1886-1945), British writer

• “No one ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.” — Kin Hubbard (1886-1930), American humorist and journalist

On the human face:

• “If the eyes are often the organ through which the intelligence shines, the nose is generally the organ which most readily publishes stupidity. ” — Marcel Proust (1871-1922), French novelist, seen at right

• “Our notion of symmetry is derived from the human face. Hence, we demand symmetry horizontally and in breadth only, not vertically nor in depth.” — Blaise Pascal (1623-62), French scientist and philosopher

• “When indifferent, the eye takes stills, when interested, movies.” — Malcolm de Chazal (1902-81), Mauritian writer and painter

• “The wink was not our best invention.” — Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962), English poet

On immaculate conception:

• “Behind this ingenious doctrine lies, I cannot help suspecting, a not very savory wish to make the Mother of God an Honorary Gentile. As if we didn’t all know perfectly well that the Holy Ghost and Our Lady both speak British English, He with an Oxford, She with a Yiddish, accent.” — Auden, seen below

A Certain World: a Commonplace Book is now 40 years old, but used copies are still available.

I’ve seen them listed for $5.65 hardbound, with copies in mint condition for $22.95. I paid more than that 30 years ago when I bought a paperback copy in a London bookstore.

While in Sausalito Sunday, I watched as a sailboat race and a blimp glided over San Francisco Bay on the afternoon breezes.

100_3134_1_1

The lettering on the side of the blimp was difficult to read at a distance until I photographed the air ship, using a zoom lens. And even after studying the photograph, I wasn’t sure what was being promoted.

What was I to make of “23andMe.com personal genetics”? Or the slogan on the blimp’s nose: “Join the Research Revolution”?

100_3138

So I checked online. Turns out 23andMe.com is selling $399 “at-home DNA tests.” You supposedly can learn about everything from your risks of inherited ailments to your maternal and paternal ancestry, along with where on the globe where your strain of DNA is usually found.

Back in 1903, the remains of a man who had died approximately 9,000 years ago were found in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England. For much of the next 93 years, “Cheddar Man,” as the remains came to be known, resided quietly in London’s Natural History Museum.

In 1944, however, the significance of DNA came to be understood, and in 1996, a researcher from Oxford University used one of Cheddar Man’s molars to check the old guy’s DNA. The researcher then had the bright idea to take DNA samples from 20 residents in the village of Cheddar, which is not far from the cave.

Apparently some families in southwest England really stay put — not just for generations but for millennia. Two Cheddar schoolchildren had exact DNA matches with Cheddar Man, and a teacher had a close match.

While many traits may be inherited from our ancestors via DNA, others can be passed down in unexpected ways. Here’s an example of a domestic accident that has affected four generations of my extended family.

Mother & grandmother001_1_1

My mother Edith Mitchell, née Vokes, born in 1906, sits on the lap of her mother Harriet Vokes, née Wheeler, in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.

Mom as a girl002_1When my grandmother was a girl in Canada back around 1880, she was slicing food in the kitchen one day when the knife slipped and cut deeply into a finger.

Bleeding profusely, she had to be rushed to a doctor.

The injury was sufficiently traumatic that when my mother (left) grew old enough to help in the kitchen, Grandmother repeatedly described the accident in warning my mother to be careful with kitchen knives.

I never met grandmother Vokes. She died in 1925, more than 18 years before I was born.

Mom with me c. 1945003_1 Mom emigrated to the United States in 1930, and my parents were living half a block from the Marina Green in San Francisco when I was born in 1943. As a result, many of my parents’ early photos of me were shot beside San Francisco Bay.

When I grew old enough to start helping Mom in the kitchen, she was so fixated on the danger of kitchen knives that she told me over and over how her own mother had injured herself by not cutting correctly.

The warning was drummed into my head to where even today at 65, whenever I slice food, I remember a finger’s getting cut — despite its happening 130 years ago in a foreign country to a person I never met.

100_2870_2_1_1When my stepdaughter Shaili Zappa, 16, was visiting from Guatemala last month, I told her this story and she was intrigued. (Photo of Shaili and me by Ana Gonzalez)

On Sunday, Shaili emailed me from Central America: “Every time I chop carrots, I remember the story!”

Think about it. A girl in Canada cut a finger with a kitchen knife during the 19th century, and although we are now in the 21st century, her direct and indirect descendants in the United States and Guatemala continue to wince. To my mind, that’s as remarkable as DNA.

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