Randy Fry, baritone saxophone


“I think I just have an indomitable spirit.”



Both of my parents were both born in 1925.  My dad grew up in Oakland.  My mother grew up in what is now the Ukraine which was still part of Poland then.  In ’39 Hitler and Stalin drew up a non-aggression pact.  Germany invaded Poland from the west and Russia invaded from the east where my mother was.  Her uncle had been an agricultural minister.  He had a property where there had been a brewery so all the brewery castings were in the ground and the soil was really rich.  They had people working for them.

She and her family were taken at gunpoint in the middle of the night, put on cattle cars and taken to Siberia.  (editor:  From February to April 1940 the Red Army annexed territories in the eastern parts of Poland.  About 250,000 Poles and thousands of Ukrainians and Byelorussians were deported in three major waves to Siberia and to Central and Far Eastern Asia in order to remove the most active populations from the annexed territories.)  They were there somewhere between two and four years.  My mom’s brother and sister did not survive.  Around 1945 she and her mother and father went overland from Siberia through all those “stan” countries to Tehran in what was Persia then and Iran today.

My father was a non-com stationed in Tehran with the US Persian Gulf Command.  (editor: It maintained a supply line through Iran for the benefit of our Soviet allies.)   They met there shortly after she arrived.  They were just in their 20s.  I have some photographs of them as a young couple.  My mother was a classic Slavic beauty with high cheekbones, fair hair—just a gorgeous woman.  My father had good taste.  They were married in Persia and she was able to come to the states pretty much right away.  My brother was born in Oakland.  He’s four years older than me.  I was born in Alameda.

It seemed like their lives were the American dream.  They had a dog and a house in the suburbs.  My dad was working as a golf professional.  It was sort of the family business, his father and several of his uncles.  His father had played against Sam Snead.   I have a picture of him and Ben Hogan sitting on a tee waiting.  It was at a time when golf was being democratized.  A lot of public golf courses were being built.  George Archer, who came from San Francisco and won the Masters in 1969, was illiterate.

My mother was separated from her family from 1945 until 1952.  Right after the war Poles were not allowed in the country so most of my mother’s cousins and aunts and uncles ended up in Edmonton, Alberta.  But my father sponsored her parents and my uncle, my mother’s brother.  He put up a $10,000 bond to guarantee there wouldn’t be a cost to the government.  That’s like $175,000 or more today.  At that time they were in London so they came over on the Queen Mary and took the train to Oakland from New York.  And that’s when things started to go south.  My grandmother was a very strong-willed woman.  That’s probably how they made it through as well as they did.  She was protective, but almost paranoid at times.  This was a family that was traumatized—uprooted by a war, losing two kids.

And she did not approve of the way my father made a living.

You can see the change in the photographs of my mom.  The color was taken out of her life.  It’s just remarkable to see her gradual deterioration.

My father wanted to get away from that caustic environment.  He had a friend from the military whose father owned a furniture business in Cave Junction, Oregon, so he went up to visit, looked around and landed a job on the local country club as the golf professional.  He was driving back to Cave Junction when a car came over the center line and ran him off the road.  It was 1953; there were no seat belts in those days.  He was killed.

By that time my mother had been committed into Agnews State Insane Asylum.  I was three and my brother was six.  I was separated from him because the guardianship hadn’t become finalized.  He was being cared for by my father’s side of the family but once the courts decided that the guardianship was going to my Polish grandmother and her son, my uncle, then we were reunited.

Apparently there was a lot of rancor about the guardianship.  My father’s older brother was paraplegic so that grandmother had her hands full.   But the focal point of my Polish grandmother’s contempt—she’d shake her fist and spit—was that my father’s mother had been divorced.  That was worse than being in Agnews.  A divorcee!

We would visit my mother at Agnews.  My grandmother made me go in.  It was horrible.  Given the state of psychiatric care, I know she was on Thorazine, and I’m pretty sure shock treatments.  I always had to pretend like I was really happy to go see her.  But I hated it down there because it was so creepy.  You drove on the grounds and there was a profound silence and it seemed like there was like an edge in the air.  And sometimes you’d hear women screaming at the top of their lungs.

My brother wouldn’t go.  He would just refuse.  I was young and malleable.  I was going to be the good kid.  But it was awful.  And then, of course, we could never talk about it at home; I couldn’t tell any of my friends about it.  It was this shameful thing.

And in the meantime, my father’s gone.  When I was a kid, I would spend hours thinking of what it would have been if my dad hadn’t gotten killed, just fantasize about how it would be.  I finally outgrew the fantasizing but those things never go away.  We learn to live with them but they are just part of who we are.

Fortunately he had left a life insurance policy for $10,000 and with $5,000 of it my grandmother bought the house where I grew up in.  It was in San Francisco in the Sunset on 21st Avenue right off of Irving Street, one of those stucco houses with the garage underneath and the house above, redwood construction throughout, all the floor joists and beams.  So I never felt like we were poor because we always had a place to live and we always had enough to eat.  A lot of the old country stuff that I grew up with is now very current, au courant.  We were eating marrow bones and she was pickling our own food.  She made her own soap.  In fact whenever we had family get-togethers, it was no problem for her to feed 20 people.

And she would pick up these odd jobs.  She worked at Shriner’s Hospital for a while in the kitchen and she did a lot of house cleaning and babysitting.  She never had much formal education.  She could read and write but her English was poor and she spoke a combination of English, Polish and hand signs.  When I was a kid, the Polish Club Hall was down on 23rd and Shotwell.  The 3rd of May is a Polish national holiday and there would be Polish folk dancing.  On Friday nights I used to have to go to rehearsals there.  We’d dance in the park on the stage at the Band Concourse.  And when Nixon was running for governor of California, he made a campaign stop there.  I had my photograph taken for the Chronicle with Old Tricky Dick and Alma Isaeff, one of the kids she babysat.  And wow! He had halitosis.

But it was tough living with my grandmother—lots of guilt trips.  I once told her that she was lucky to have me to take care of because otherwise she wouldn’t have anything better to do.  Gave her some purpose in life.  That she shut her up because there was probably some truth to it.

But I was outside all the time as a kid.  T-shirt, jeans, and a pair of Keds and I was gone till it was dark.  I had a bike.  And we lived on a good enough hill that we’d make coasters.  Sports was a big thing.  We played basketball, baseball, softball.  After school we’d go home, change and run back to the schoolyard and play shirts and skins to 100.   And strikeouts.  You paint a rectangle on a wall.

Our first record player was a wind-up Victrola—78 records with polka music.  Every once in a while we’d roll up the carpets and crank up the polka in the front room.  But as a kid growing up I had rock ‘n’ roll, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones.  I loved music.  In my early teens my life was music and sports and girls.  That was it.  But I never played an instrument until I was middle aged if you don’t count a stainless steel nose flute I had as a kid—a weird instrument.

I started in public school—Jefferson Grammar School but in the fourth grade this kid, Magid, burned the school down.  Later he burned down a Boy Scout building and he started another fire, a Spanish chapel that the Hearst family had purchased.  It had been shipped in wooden containers and they were going to rebuild it in the Golden Gate Park.  Every rock had a number but he burned all the crates they were in and the numbers were gone so they could never put it together. The rocks sat in the corner of the Japanese Tea Garden for years.

So Muni buses shuttled us over to Laughton grammar school.  I went there for the fourth grade but my cousins were being enrolled into the Catholic grammar school, St. Anne’s, and at that time if you had multiple kids going to the school, you would get a family discount so they threw me in on that deal.  It went to the eighth grade.  And from there I went to SI (editor: Saint Ignatius High School).  I think it was $400 a year but after my freshman year an anonymous family gave me a scholarship.

In grammar school I played baseball, basketball, soccer.  I was blessed with a responsive, sturdy body—good peasant stock.  Always had a good sense of balance and we ate well.   We used go into Golden Gate Park, 25th Avenue.  There was a meadow there.  Sometimes it’d be mud and slime.  We’d play full-on tackle football games.  I just loved knocking people down.  In fact, to this day, I still like to do it.  There’s something about the physicality of it.  And being a part of a team—participating, contributing, being selfless.  In music, too.  I’m playing like the middle guard of instruments.  I learned a lot of lessons playing team sports.

At SI I got involved with the football program which was pretty good.  And I found out that during the football season my grades would always be better because the more I did, the more I could do.  I’ve taken that lesson to heart too.  I keep busy.

I played Middle Guard and linebacker.  I could have gotten a football scholarship but I realized that some of these big-time football coaches were just not nice people.  I was just a tool for them.  I knew that I would be used and discarded.  I saw the writing on that wall.  We had a kid on our team that USC wanted.  They were a football power, still are.  They were grooming him.  And they were going to give him a football scholarship.  They had a seminar at the Sheridan Palace Hotel that I went to with him.  One of the coaches was doing a demonstration of blocking techniques and he put me up against a kid who was about 6’4″, 220 pounds.  And I was about the height I am now, about 5’ 11”, but weighed about 170 pounds.  We had helmets on and nothing else.  And the coach had us going through a practice before the seminar started.   He wanted to see what this kid could do.  I was used to going against bigger kids.  My brother was always bigger than me but I would never take anything from him.  I’d always fight back.  And that mechanism kicked in, right?

So I’m hitting as hard as I can and the coach is eating it up.  He’s a freaking madman, making animal noises.  And I’m getting all worked up.  And then so he goes, “Okay. Okay, fellas. All right. That’s good for now.”  But then we do the demonstration in front of the audience.  There’s a couple hundred people in the audience.  And I come out with the same attitude and he goes, “Oh, no, no. Come on now, fella.  I know you’re excited.”  I could see he was just playing me.  That kid who went to USC?  They just gobbled him up.

And things were really happening in the Height—‘67, the Summer of Love.  At that time SI was just a couple of blocks away from all this mysterious stuff.  Weed.  I had to find out what was going on.

Then I went to USF for a couple of years.  I had gotten a state full ride scholarship.  I was majoring in sociology but I ended up switching to SF State and gravitated towards the arts—theater appreciation, music appreciation, film appreciation, things that people do just for the love of it or just for self-expression.  Those outlets weren’t offered to me as a kid.  I remember a nun telling me that maybe you’d get art on Friday if you behaved.  If you didn’t, you didn’t get art.  And she looked at one of my pictures and said, “Oh, that’s not very good.”   We used to have to do formal presentations to the Monsignor on his birthday.  You had to stand there perfectly still with your arms to your sides and sing.  She came up to me and Steve McDonough and said, “Yeah, you two, don’t sing. Just move your mouths.”

So at State I took Zen courses and poetry.  I used to write a lot of books.  Given my grandmother and my early home life where everything had to be practical, that was just foolishness.  Unless you can make a widget or sell a widget, forget about it.  There wasn’t an ability to explore, a sense of creativity.  My physical needs were well taken care of.  My emotional ones, maybe not so much.  But it was the ’70s and everybody was working on themselves.  That was the deal.  I used to joke that we all wore coveralls, but instead of working on automobiles, we were working on getting our heads straight.  I went to therapy.

And I think I just have an indomitable spirit.

So then I traveled for two years.  I started in Spain.  Franco was still there. (editor:  The Franco army overthrew the Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War and he ruled oppressively over Spain from 1939 to 1975 as a dictator.)  The first thing I saw when I got into Madrid was some old guy pissing on a wall.  I thought, “I like this place.  This place is okay.”  And people are eating dinner at 10 o’clock at night and in the streets till 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning.  “Man, this place is different.”

In Andalucia, I was traveling alone, hitchhiking, and taking buses.  I met a  kid in Sevilla and he said, “Why don’t you come visit me where I live?”  He gave me his address so I took a bus to this foothill town with cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings.  I’m walking up the street with my rucksack.  Most of the Americans had those big backpacks.  But I thought, “I’m not going to the woods, man. I just need a convenient way to carry my clothes.”  And I even brought a sports coat and slacks and a tie.

I walked to this guy’s house in the middle of this town with a dozen kids following me down the street. They’re all dancing and pointing at me and laughing.  I get to the guy’s house and knock on the door.  His mom answers. “Who are you?”

I had taken three years of Spanish at USF so my Spanish was still pretty good.  She just looked at me with the stank eye, then called, “Hey, Jose, your American friend’s here.  And he ain’t staying with us, by the way.”

I ended up staying in a pension, essentially a family that took in travelers, which was really cool.   It was a cold May.  They had a round table with a heater underneath and a wool tablecloth in a family room.  We all sat around the table staying warm.  The women were knitting or crocheting.  The guys were reading the paper.

In the town there was a bodega with a wine bar with olives.  There were flamenco dancers.

When I left I headed south and went through North Africa to Italy.   I was going to Poland.  I was like a salmon headed back upriver to the ancestral spawning grounds—although I didn’t get to spawn.  But I made it back and visited my grandmother’s brothers.  She also had a sister but they were estranged, maybe because she had become a Jehovah’s Witness.  Poles are Catholic.  By that time I’d been traveling for about six months.

They were living in Poznan.  And this was Uncle Pavel, my great uncle who I’d seen photographs of.  My uncle had written him telling him that I was coming.  I knock on the door, he answers, I tell him who I am and he’s hugging me and kissing me, calling his son and his wife and the kids.  “Look who’s here!!  This is our boy from America.”  It was unbelievable.  I was in Poland for about six weeks and every relative I went to visit was the same thing.

When I was there, it was still behind the Iron Curtain, like those pictures of the Cold War—gray and depressing, shortages of everything, people waiting in line.

The only difficulty I had was leaving Poland because the official exchange rate for dollars to zloty was 33 to 1 but on the black market it was 400 to 1.  So when I was on the train at the border they looked at my visa and I hadn’t exchanged enough dollars for the amount of time I’d been there.  You were supposed to spend a certain amount of money per day.  They took me off and sent me back to Poznan to a big bureaucratic building made of marble and wood, all cold and hard and polished.  I’m sitting on a hard oak bench while this bureaucrat who is holding my papers in a folder keeps walking past me back and forth, clicking his tongue, shaking his head.  He’s Polish but he’s wearing an old Russian suit that doesn’t fit quite.

“How did you survive?”

“My family took care of me. I didn’t need money.”

He shakes his head, leaves the room again.

Finally he said, “Look, we’re going to let you go, but if you ever come back . . .”

But I didn’t really care.  I figured, “What can they do to me?”

By that time I only had $50 but I had a return flight ticket to New York from Shannon in Ireland so I took the train through Europe, crossed on the ferry, took a train through England and spent a few days going through Ireland.  Wonderful experiences there.

By the time I got to New York I had $6.  I’m at the bus station in Manhattan which was scary.  I had never been in a place where there were drug people and transsexuals or whatever.  It was the first time I’d ever been really happy to see cops.  I called my uncle and I said, “Hey, Uncle Frank, could you send me some money for the bus?”  I ended up talking to this kid from Denmark.  “I just hitchhiked from California,” he tells me. “It was great.  People are really wonderful.”  He asks me what I am doing.  I tell him, “I’m waiting for a bus.”  He goes, “No, you should hitchhike back. It’s great. I mean, it’s your own country.  Why aren’t you hitchhiking?”

So that’s what I did.  Here I am in New York hitching and all these cabs are pulling up and I was getting grief from these surly cab drivers.  And it’s against the law to hitch in New York City.  So I ended up walking across the George Washington Bridge to get to New Jersey where I got a few rides.  And then two kids who had just gotten married picked me up.  They were from Rhode Island.  They had a 1964 Comet, a pretty small car.  “We’re going to San Diego and we really could use somebody to help us drive.”  I said, “Yeah, well, that’s great but I only have six bucks.”  “If you drive, that would be cool.”

We made it to Colorado and they run out of money.  Their friends had given them a bunch of stolen eight track tapes for a wedding gift but they can’t hock them because they’re not old enough.  That was probably one of the reasons they picked me up.  So I hock them for them and give them the money.

They picked up two other people, a guy named Cornflakes and his girlfriend who were heading down to the islands that are off the coast of Texas.  They said it was the best ever.  You could pick the fruit off the trees and take the fish out of the water.  God’s country.  Cornflakes could have sold them a used car.  These kids are eating it up and I’m trying to remind her about her brother who was stationed in San Diego but they decide they’re going to go with Cornflake and his gal down to these islands.

And to celebrate Old Cornflakes buys two six packs and a bottle of peppermint schnapps and proceeds to drive because he was apparently a truck driver in a former life.  And it’s getting pretty gnarly, just weirder and weirder.  We get to Albuquerque and I tell them, “Oh, I’ve got to get out here.  I forgot.  I’m meeting somebody here.”  They let me off at a gas station and as they’re pulling out Cornflakes fires up the car and runs into a fire hydrant.

So I ended up calling a girl that I knew who had a Volkswagen van and she drove out from San Francisco and picked me up.  We kept traveling.  We drove through California and up to Vancouver Island and then back down and continued into Mexico.  Her parents were both Mexican so we visited her parents’ hometowns.  Her mother was from a town on the coast not too far from Guadalajara and her father was from Oaxaca.  It was very beautiful.  The markets, the Indian ladies down on the river washing the clothes.  Bare-breasted women walking around, sturdy mountain women.  It’s matriarchal.

We drove to the Gulf coast and found an isolated cove south of Campeche.  No one there.  Papaya fields that just looked like jungle.  We spent three weeks there.

After that, I was all done traveling.  I really have no desire to travel much anymore.

When I came back, I wanted to develop my relationships with the other side of the family.  My uncle had built a little pitch and putt golf course in Oakland by the Oakland Airport on leased property.  They set up a little nine-hole course where he could play and give lessons and that’s how they made their livelihood.  I think they charged 75 cents a round.  My uncle was always improving the place.  It was his thing.  He put in lights so people could play at night.  It was his impetus that made it work.  He was always very actively trying to grow the business because to do well you have to do something special for people and he was good at it.  My grandmother supported him in doing it and she was involved but it was his energy that made it work.  Even as a little kid I’d go over and hang out there during the summer.  He was always my uncle buddy.  But he died in ’67 and after that the place never changed.  My grandmother was running it.  She hired guys to do the maintenance and if there were projects going on, I would help out.  I learned how to change the holes and aerate the greens and run the equipment.

I had told her, “When I come back from traveling I’d like to work for you and maintain the golf course.”  I worked for her for three years.

In February of 1974 I was putting a sprinkler in the ground to water the greens and I said to myself, “This is wrong.”  That was the first taste I’d gotten of our California droughts.  To this day, I hoard water.  I can’t help myself.  So I told her about my concern and I said, “Grandma, I think I should be more involved with what’s going on here.”  She was very direct about it.  “I don’t think so.  This is my thing.”

It was frustrating because I always felt like I was not taken seriously.  I was always her little baby.  It’s like she didn’t see me except for the little towheaded boy.

So I got a job with the Real Food Company, sort of the precursors to Whole Foods—food in bins and organic produce and vitamins.  They had three stores in San Francisco and one in Sausalito.  I was doing outside sales and I was driving up to South Lake Tahoe when I saw a little health food store and the name of the owners was Isaeff.  That was the last name of the family that my grandmother babysat for, these two kids Alma and Johnny Isaiah.  Alma and I were photographed with Nixon.  So I walked into the store and asked, “Are you Leo Isaiah’s brother?”

“Yeah, how did you know?”

“Well, your grandmother and my grandmother were best friends.”

And it was great, like another one of these homecomings.  They took me to their house for dinner.  Gene Isaeff had been a professional musician, played the euphonium and the trombone.  At one time he played with the Minneapolis Philharmonic.  And his wife Mary she was a violin player.  They were performing up there so they gave me a ticket to their show.

But all those little mom-and-pop stores were dying on the vine.  They had just bought this place and didn’t really know they were doomed but I could see it coming.  Raley’s had put in a big natural food section.

I lost track of them but one day year later he shows up at the New Horizons Band.  They had moved from Tahoe and ended up at Oakmont.  I couldn’t believe it.  Small world.  They played together at one of our talent shows.

But in those earlier days I wasn’t playing music and the company I was working with was going bankrupt so I wondered, “What am I going to do now?”  I got a phone call from my grandmother telling me that I’d gotten a postcard from the City of San Francisco.  I’ve always told people that I didn’t grow up in San Francisco.  I grew up in Golden Gate Park because I was two blocks from there.  So I had taken a test to be a gardener and I’d kind of forgotten all about it.  The position was assistant gardener. I didn’t even know what an assistant gardener did but it was a job.  It was like I walked off a sinking ship and found a landfall.

That was around the time I was married a second time.  The first was a whirlwind 14-month marriage that obviously didn’t go too well but the second lasted 26 years.

I worked for the City for 30 years.  I never had much ambition for money or power so civil service worked for me.  As long as the job gets done you’re good.  When I worked at Stern Grove, I had a section of the park that I was responsible for.  I ended up at Harding Park Golf Course and it was the same though golfers can be awful grumpy.  We worked as a crew, eight or nine of us and they all grew in Noe Valley, Irish Catholics.  In fact, several of them had gone to grammar school through high school together.  It was like I had joined an Irish family or a team and one of the problems with this team was that a majority of the players really enjoyed drinking and maybe that was one of the team activities I should have done less of in retrospect.  It kind of got away from me at a certain point.

I had a friend who had a kid, and it really seemed to change him for the better.  I thought, “Well, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll have a kid.  And maybe I’ll be better too, a better person.”  I don’t know if it worked or not.   But my wife was a DES daughter.  (editor: A DES daughter is a woman whose mother took diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen, while pregnant with her.  The drug was prescribed between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage and other complications, but was stopped in 1971 due to medical problems in the children of women who took it.  Their offspring had difficulty with their pregnancies and often had miscarriages.)  So my daughter was the kid that wasn’t going to be.  We lost the first baby because the doctor she was seeing didn’t respond to the dangers.  When we got pregnant again, we went through the UC Med Center.  Even so, my first daughter was extremely premature, born at 29 weeks.  She weighed a pound and a half at birth and spent three months in an incubator.  Even though she was teeny tiny, her vital signs were really, really high.  She had some of that peasant will to live.  Today Natalie is a beautiful young woman with a child of her own with no complications.  Will is going to be four in May.

My other girl was only seven weeks premature.  She did well.  They’re three years, nine months separated.  Like my brother and I are three years, nine months apart.

It’s interesting how a little kid can bring so much joy and energy brings into your life.  Natalie was going somewhere recently and wanted to drop Will off at my place, and I’m thinking, “I don’t know, man.”  And he’s not in the house more than a minute or two and I’m infused with his life force.  I was at my cousin’s house at a yearly get together and there were 15 kids under the age of seven.  The place was humming, a tornado.  Her house is laid out like a racetrack so they’re doing laps.

When my older daughter was in the fourth grade we were living up here and the Old Adobe School District had some money for music programs.  The teacher, Laura Cummins, sent home a note saying that she was going to start an adult band and anybody who had a musical instrument was welcomed no matter what level, even if they didn’t know how to read music, even beginners.

My former wife’s father had been in the San Francisco Fire Department and firemen have a lot of time on their hands so he used to play his sax between going out on calls.  I never met the gentleman but from what I hear he was pretty good.  In fact he had just gotten a musician’s card from the union and intended to follow his dream to play on cruise ships when his life was cut short—a heavy smoker and drinker.

But he had a Selmer Mark VI alto saxophone and a clarinet.  I never saw the clarinet because the former wife hocked it.  And she actually hocked the saxophone at the same time but as she was walking out of the pawn shop on Mission Street she had second thoughts.  She doubled back and the guy gave it back to her.  So for years we took it from place to place whenever we moved.  It sat in a closet.  I knew nothing about Selmer or Mark VI so I didn’t know what I had.  But I remembered that it was there and I said to myself, “Why not?”

Louise Graves who played alto sax was in that Old Adobe community band. And she kept telling me about New Horizons.  “Really, you should come to New Horizons.”  But I was still working at the time.  When I retired almost 10 years ago I took her up on it and I stayed.

And now I’m finally getting to do something that I always wanted to do.