“We take our horns down to the beach and play. It’s like talking. We don’t say anything. We just go on to the next song. ”
I was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1933 at the Madison General Hospital where my mother was a nurse. We lived in a house where my great great grandfather had lived when he came to America in the 1850s. He had been a silversmith in Ireland during the panic, the Potato Famine. People were dying. (editor: The Irish Potato Famine began in 1845 when a mold caused a destructive plant disease to spread rapidly throughout Ireland. Other vegetables, grains and meat animals were grown and exported but it was the property of the landlords and anyone who attempted to eat it was severely punished. Between 1845 and 1852 more than 1.5 million people starved to death while massive quantities of food were being exported to Britain. A half million people were evicted from their homes, often illegally and violently. More than 1.5 million adults and children left for America. Americans, particularly the people of Massachusetts, donated money, goods and food to ship to Ireland.)
He worked on the railroad when they were laying tracks across the country. (editor: Union Pacific Railroad had Irish workers laying track from 1863-1868.) When they were done he went to Madison. He arrived on a summer day around 1870. As he was walking up Dodie Street he saw an old woman sitting on the front porch with a fan, keeping cool. He went up to the railing at the corner of the porch and he said, “Have you got a cup of water for a poor old soul?” She warned him, “Don’t you come on the porch.” But she got him a cup of water and they had a little chat.
The next day he came back, got another cup of water and two weeks later they got married. He was close to 70 and she was around 55 but they had a child and that was my great grandfather and that was the house where they lived. We never knew anything about my great great grandmother’s family except that they had been there a while.
My mom’s family was from Switzerland and Germany. She was born in Lake Mills 30 miles to the east of Madison towards Milwaukee, one of 9 children. We would often go there to have picnics during the summer and visit family—big, heavy duty family get-togethers, lots of relatives: grandmas, great grandmas.
My dad’s family was from Ireland and Germany. My dad had always talked about someday going to Ireland to see the country. He had never been there but he talked about it and dreamed about it. He retired in Santa Barbara, back of Mission Creek. Every afternoon he would sit under his oak tree with his coffee and I’d often stop by after work and say hello or visit a little. A few months after he retired I said, “Hey Joe, when are you going to go to Ireland?” He said, “If you want to go to Ireland, go yourself.” So we did.
We went to Ennis in County Clare and visited many burial sites where they list people’s names. There were a lot of Garys but not the right one, not our family. So I went to the courthouse and they sent me to the manager of the library who wrote down a name and said, “Call this lady. She’s probably your cousin.” So I called and it was wonderful. I told her the name of the hotel we were staying in and she said, “Come to pub number one.” I walked down the hall and there she was in the sitting in a chair. She saw me and started laughing. “You look exactly like my brother.”
And of course traveling around we would sit in bars drinking a pint of beer, not American sized glass but a real pint. Almost every bar in Ireland has musical instruments hanging on the wall. You can grab one, check the tuning and play. It’s a robust family social moment getting together and I could feel that in my family growing up in a neighborhood where I knew everybody—the O’Brians, the Chapmans, all of them. I could look out the front window across the street and there was grandma’s house. She would make six apple pies a day and sometimes I made them with her. I still make her pies.
Two of my classmates lived on our street. We went to Dodie School together just over one block away, the same school that my dad had gone to. When I was in the second grade we moved over to Randall Street where they had built a new grade school, Washington.
Madison has a circle of five lakes. We lived inside the circle. The railroad was only one block away. Madison had five railroads, a very busy place. I’ve been exploring ever since I could walk. I started by exploring our neighborhood but eventually I knew all of Madison and my folks and the neighbors never knew about it. I’ve been exploring ever since.
Wisconsin has cold long winters so my father and his buddy hitchhiked to California around 1918. They mostly walked because there weren’t many cars then. They got to San Diego in the spring and they were excited about how warm it was. They hadn’t eaten in several days so they went into an orange orchard and ate so many oranges that they threw up. They had never experienced oranges before. They stayed the summer.
So in 1943 when my dad was offered a job as a brakeman on the California Southern Railroad in California he jumped at the chance to get back out here. I was 9 years old. I finished the fourth grade and we followed him. My mother and her sister and us three kids got in our 1937 Dodge four door sedan and drove out at 35 miles an hour to save on gas because it was rationed; there were gas stamps.
At night we would find a farm that had haystacks. We would take a blanket and spread the hay out a little bit and sleep in a mountain of hay.
When we got to the Great Salt Lake desert, it was flat and there were so few cars so my aunt said, “Do you want to drive?” She put three cushions on the seats and I got behind the wheel.
On the 7th day we arrived in California. Evening was approaching, it was dinnertime. We were in San Luis Obispo, low on gas and out of gas stamps. We pulled into a gas station and my mother told the owner that she didn’t know what to do. He said, “That restaurant over there has really great food. Go over there and have dinner and then come on back and we’ll talk about it.”
While we had dinner, he closed his gas station and went home. We sat in the car a while and my mom decided to drive down the road a little bit. When she started it up she said, “Hey, look at that. There’s gas.” So we finished our trip to Santa Barbara.
We were there about two weeks and a neighbor was having a yard sale. He had a 1935 Conn trumpet for sale. I said, “How much is it?” He said, “Well, it’s $35.”
I had been doing garbage trash collection in Madison, recycling metal and everything. And I had helped deliver milk. The milkman came by in a horse drawn cart and when he was in our block, I rode with him and took the milk from the cart up to the door. To me, that was a big deal.
So I had the money and I bought the trumpet.
And I had an immediate girlfriend, the girl across the street, Mary. It didn’t matter to me that she was Mexican. I had no idea that there was that thing going about race. She was just a cute girl and we went out in the field and had a lot of fun.
We only lived a block and a half from downtown State Street where Bennett Music Company was. I told the salesperson that I had just bought a trumpet and I wanted to learn how to play. He gave me a little five minute lesson on how to blow the trumpet, showed me one, two, three, the fingering, showed me a C scale and gave me a little book about a quarter inch thick with the scale and a few chords so I’d know what I was getting into. He said I could take this book home and study it and I could come back and schedule lessons. I learned to play the first song in five minutes. Cherry Pie. I never forgot it. I was 9 years old.
The kids in the neighborhood all went to the same school and were mostly in my grade. A Spanish teacher came in one day a week and we learned Spanish and Spanish songs. She played the piano and as soon as I saw her having so much fun on the piano I wanted to do that too. So I started piano lessons. My mom had had her piano sent out from Wisconsin. But after two weeks the principle of the school found out I was taking piano lessons and trumpet lessons after school. He said, “You can’t do that. You’ve got to take one or the other.” So I quit the wrong one. I kept playing the trumpet but I like the piano much better. The range. I have an electronic piano keyboard now, almost a full keyboard. You hit a button and you have all these different instruments on it too.
I also go to the computer if I want to hear the Turk Murphy band. My favorite song is Weary Blues. I’ll grab my trumpet and play along. They could be anywhere in the world. I sit here and watch them and they’re in France or Italy and I play along.
In junior high and high school we were playing all the time. I rode to school on my bicycle with my trumpet case and briefcase for my books on the handlebars. I was in the band and the brass ensemble and the orchestra, anything and everything. There was always a summer band and we had a concert every week at a different park.
My music teacher in high school was Henry Brubeck, Dave Brubeck’s brother. One day he came over and said, “Gary, here. You’re going to play this now” and handed me a French horn.
Our band, the Santa Barbara High School Marching Band, won all Southern California for three years in a row. They gave us a free night at the Palladium where Harry James was playing. All of the musicians played good in those days—the timing and slurring and tongue. I’m a Scorpio. Exactness seems to be part of my makeup. Today, it doesn’t seem to matter to them quite so much.
I went in the bathroom and Harry James was at the urinal taking a leak and smoking a joint.
“Mister Harry James, can you sign my band card for me?”
And he says, “Sure.”
And I still have it.
My dad obviously knew I liked music so he took me to the jam sessions at Disneyland and I met a lot of famous old musicians there. Louis Armstrong and his group were playing inside of that old replica sailboat. You could walk up and hang around with them. (editor: The Sailing Ship Columbia, located at the Disneyland park in Anaheim, California, is a full-scale replica of Columbia Rediviva, the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe.) We went maybe 6 times.
I went to the JC to continue being with my high school buddies but I didn’t know what I was going to be. I thought maybe I’d be a heart surgeon because of my exposure to the doctors from the hospital every night at dinner. My mom was the head of surgical nurses for 26 years so she knew all the doctors and she had worked with them during the war.
When I graduated in ‘51 from high school I was already into cars. In fact I was into making all kinds of things—vacuum tube radios and communicating devices. I was also into painting, did my first painting of an automobile when I was four years old, a watercolor of a 1932 Ford roadster hot rod. It was light green, the fenders were off, it had headers on it and it was lowered. A lot of detail. Detail had already clicked into me. Going from our house to the high school down Delaware street every day I went past the hot rod shop and a year before I graduated, I started hanging out there. One day the owner, Bob Joehnck, says, ”Hey, you want to pump gas?” He paid me 5 cents an hour! But I got to see them building hot rods. I wound up studying it more than they did. Bob had been an aircraft mechanic in World War II in England or Europe and he fixed the timing on planes, a real tough challenge. Most of the mechanics couldn’t or wouldn’t do it. But he knew what was what. So I learned from him and started building my own hot rod in high school. I had a 1944 two door sedan. I bought a brand-new Mercury block and then bored and stroked it, added an Iskendarian cam, and put in a valve arrangement–a big valve and little valve. You have to do that to get the flow energized of the combustion though most people don’t believe it. I put in three ring pistons, relieved the combustion chamber and cleaned up the ports.
I put a supercharger on top of all of this. You have a powerful engine to begin with. I had W headers on it that came along the outside of the car. When the hood was closed, you didn’t see much except that pipe. But you could probably hear it.
And it went fast. It would go 70 in first gear, 105 in second, 165 in third. I drove it around every night. We had nighttime drag races. One night we said, “Let’s go to the drive-in in Ventura,” which is 30 miles away. We made it there in ten minutes. We were passing the cars in our lane like they were going the other way. We were going around 140. It’s a good thing the cops didn’t see us though they couldn’t have caught us. My boss was a Bonneville racer and my street hot rod would go faster than his Bonneville roadster.
I have an exacting level within me, a part that wants everything to be precise, so I went to UC Santa Barbara to learn drafting. Dr. Share was the teacher and he didn’t give an “A” but I got an “A” two years in a row.
Then I went into the navy and became a sonar airman. I went through boot camp in San Diego and then went on a destroyer 677. I went all around the South Pacific. We chased submarines. Being a sonar man, I had to know our equipment, I had to know how to repair it and maintain it.
I took my trumpet with me and there were five other musicians on the ship who had instruments so we played together or I just went on deck and played by myself.
I got out in San Francisco, went in town and looked around, had a beer and decided, “Well, time to go home.” So I got on the Greyhound bus, came back home to Santa Barbara. It was summertime. I went down to west beach. A lot of summertime kids were there but I just saw this one girl. And I said, “Um, that’s the one!” I went over and tried to talk to her, but she said, “No, I’ve got to go to work.” She got on the bus and I followed on my bicycle. She worked at Newberry’s. So I went in and walked around and found her. “Can I meet you at the beach next week?”
That summer we really got cozy and decided to get married. We lived upstairs at my folks two story house, kind of like living back in Madison but we wanted our own house and about six months later, we bought one and moved in. I went back to JC and picked up some odd jobs. I delivered telegrams on my bicycle. (I’ve done a lot of bicycling in my life, ridden Highway 1 all the way from San Diego to Canada. I rode up Mount Baker in the Cascades and Mauna Loa on the Big Island.)
I learned to play the Irish tin pipe, a penny whistle, on the street in Santa Barbara. I was about 45. A woman from Ireland advertised for some students who would like to learn to play Irish music. We stood in a circle and she would play a little phrase. We played it back. And another. When we put all three phrases together that was a song. I still keep them in the car so I can just reach in the back and play if I’m sitting waiting somewhere.
You know, I was general contractor for much of my working life. And right behind the seat in my pickup I kept my trumpet. I’d pull up to a stop sign, a three way light or something, sitting there a long time, I’d just pick up my horn and play. People were shocked. When I go back to Santa Barbara, I usually visit with my music friends. We might meet at Goleta beach and take our horns down there, walk down the beach and play. We don’t even talk about it, just go to the next song and play. It’s like talking. It’s a way of talking.
We got into square dancing and one night we were going around in a circle hand to hand. I come up to this woman and we grabbed each other’s hands, looked at each other’s eyes. And we froze.
Six months later we ran away. She had five children. We took the kids and her library of books. She says, “You want me? You take my books.” But we didn’t know where to go and we didn’t want to go through divorce at that time because it took too long and was expensive. So I got my paycheck Friday, changed my name, got a different car, got a U-Haul, put everything in it and drove out of town. We put a map down on the floor, made a dart out of a matchstick like the cowboys do, held our hands together and dropped it. The dart landed on Carson City, Nevada. Actually it landed in a place called Franktown which is about five miles north of Carson City.
In the first week of December there’s no snow in Santa Barbara. But there is snow in Carson City. We got there at 6 o’clock at night and it was already dark. We got a motel, ate dinner and said, “Tomorrow we’ll go out to Franktown and look for a place to live.”
Franktown turned out to be a ghost town. There were three walls left of an old jail and crumbling foundations of a couple of buildings. So we went up to Tahoe but we had a hard time finding a place to rent because that was the year of the Olympics. We stayed about two weeks and because money was running out we moved to Reno where I found work.
I bought a science fiction paperback, went through and put a dot under each word that I wanted to build a sentence with and created a code. I sent it to my brother who decoded it and found out where I was. He told my dad who then came to visit us. “Let’s go to a bar where we can talk.” He outlined my mistakes and where I was going to fail and what was going to happen.
I decided to ignore him and we moved again the next day, this time to Portland where it rained or snowed five or six times a day in the winter. I got work but when April came my brain code flashed off and on six times and I said, “That’s enough.” I told my boss, “This Friday, I’m quitting.” We moved back to Reno and wound up living in Virginia City, got a house for $35 a month. That weekend I got a job putting up prefabs at Lake Tahoe. A group of us from Virginia City drove over every day.
I lived there about 5 years. And heard a lot of good music because you know they have lots of concerts in Reno. They come to the casinos to play and also there’s a University of Nevada.
One day at work somebody was using a crowbar and knocked a block off that had fifteen nails in it. It went over the truck, down the other side and stuck in my head. I screamed and went down. The boss took me to the Tahoe emergency where they put in fifteen stitches.
On the way home we stopped at a bar. I knew the owner and he says, “Hey, did you know they sold your house in Virginia City?” We were two weeks away from the birth of my son Sean. My wife said she wanted the baby delivered by the same doctor that delivered the others so we decided to go back home. I got another U-Haul, loaded up and we moved back to Santa Barbara. My wife’s house was owned by her mother, grandma Kiel and it was sitting there empty.
That night I called my old high school buddy Jim Gordon to see if he knew of any work. Jim says, “I’ll give you a number. You can call and I think you can get a job.” So I called John Carter and went to work for him the next morning.
And I still call John Carter every first of the month. He’s 96 years old now. He’ll say, “Hey, do you remember that job over at Hope Ranch?” That’s where I went to work for him.
I learned electrical and plumbing and framing and designing and real estate and cars. I even took flying lessons. I went to a ground school and I’ve flown 15 different airplanes. I learned to fly helicopters also.
The most fun for me when I’m flying is to take a friend along and put a little cup of water it on the dashboard of the plane. When I want to give the person a drink I fly in a curve. If you do it just right the cup of water will lift up and sail across and they have to catch it or it will spill on them.
That second marriage lasted about 8 years. Then I went to live with my brother. A Kuala woman named Sue came to Santa Barbara and needed a place to stay. She found my brother’s house through a rental ad. She was from New York but she wound up in Santa Barbara.
Shortly after, she and I got married. I bought an old house from a weird nut case who had three wolves in the backyard in a broken-down garage. His curtains were shut all the time. He didn’t want anybody to see how he was living. The house was freaky. He was freaky. He may have had to sell it because of his wolves but in any case we bought it for $27,000. Both of us were working and making pretty good money. We paid off the loan in a year and a half and then were able to save money so we traveled every summer.
We’ve traveled to Bali, South East Asia, China, Nepal, Japan, Russia, and much of Europe.
About ten years ago we took a two-month trip around the world on our own, started in Shanghai, went to Kuala Lumpur. Then to India where we saw the Taj Mahal then went south and stayed on a rubber farm. The people who owned it were teachers. They offered a yoga class in the river every morning. They cooked and then ate with us in the patio under the rubber trees.
From there we went to Dubai, Morocco, Barcelona and Iceland and then spent some time in the northeast of America.
One winter in the early nineties there was a full moon on the winter solstice in Barrow, Alaska. It was 56 below and we stood in the cold looking at the sky. The moon rose briefly just above the horizon and then went down in its low orbit. But it came up a second time for about two hours and hovered large. Quite a sight.
On the way home we visited friends in Bellingham, Washington where it rains all the time—rain and snow but two days before Christmas it was clear and the sun was out so Rich took me rowing in a boat that he had built. We went to his crab traps and got fresh crab for dinner. The next day we hiked up Mount Baker. I said, “Hey, Rich, what’s it cost to live here?” He said, “Well, I don’t know, not very much, cheaper than in Santa Barbara.” So we found a real estate lady, looked at five properties and bought one on the way to the airport. We went back to Santa Barbara and put our house on the market. It sold within two hours.
We spent two years in Bellingham but it didn’t work out so we moved to Hawaii on the north end of the Big Island where we spent four months but that didn’t work out either. We just couldn’t fit in with the people there.
So we went to an astrocartographer in San Francisco. He asked us a bunch of questions, drew lines on a map and said, “Where these lines cross, that’s where it’s good for you to live.” And one of them was here in Sebastopol.
We came up in 1994 and built a house out on Tilton road. It was our dream house. We designed it and it was everything we wanted. It was on a little ridge where the fog from the ocean came in, went over the ridge and stopped on that road.
I was a contractor for 37 years, built over 400 houses. I designed and drafted many homes, often working with the owner. I’d offer suggestions, add the feng shui element to house, orient the windows to the sun—the equinox and the solstices. Right now I’m designing a new sundial shape. It creates a shadow, a little dot in the center that when the sundial body is lying down is a figure 8.
I feel excitement every day, what am I going to build next? What am I going to design next? I think something clicks when you’re born or along the way, maybe when you’re a kid growing up. You have a number of prongs that can be clipped or picked. They either get started or they don’t.
I joined the Petaluma band and the Healdsburg band. When I joined the Healdsburg band, I played trumpet but one of the French horn players was someone who had sat next to me when I played French horn in Santa Barbara.
Someone invited me to the New Horizon band. There were only nineteen people then. I was playing trumpet and I was helping out some of the musicians who had forgotten too much of the music. Lew Sbrana said, “I wish we had a French horn player.” And Craig Thomas who plays the euphonium went online and bought a French horn for me for $25. It needed some work so I took it over Stanroys and they fixed it up.
We had five acres of gophers, poison oak, Doug firs and fog so we sold the house and in 2006 we moved to Hawaii for ten years. When that didn’t work anymore we moved back here seven years ago but while we were in Hawaii I learned to play ukulele. I played in a group there and I learned how to build ukuleles from scratch. I’ve got seven ukuleles in my workshop right now that I have made. I just finished helping a young girl who was in school here in Sebastopol. She bought a kit. Her mother had a dance class at the Park Point workout club with my wife, Sue, who told her that I made them so she brought it here and I helped her through it with all my woodworking tricks. My garage is a shop—table saw and drill press, band saw, all my carpenter tools. All my fun things. And I’ve got a few paintings on the wall that I’ve painted here and there around the world.
And when we moved back I started up with all those bands again. So here we are.