Richard Bloom, Clarinet
“Perhaps it was music that saved my sanity.”
The Early Years
I was born in San Francisco on January 10, 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor and grew up in the Richmond District. I lived there for the first seventeen years of my life. It was a very stable childhood, very sweet families, a lot of kids to play with, mostly Irish Catholic but we were a diverse working class community. Early on there were Irish, Jews, Italians, and WASPS but a Black piano teacher and his wife, both always impeccably and stylishly dressed unlike most of the working class folk on the block, moved in during my early teens (though no one seemed to interact with them), a Fillipino family down the street, a three generation Japanese family next door to us. The grandmother didn’t speak English but she would come to our door with flowers and my mother and she would stand there smiling and nodding and saying a few words, she in Japanese, my mother in English. I used to hang out with the older son occasionally as he worked on his boat in their garage. In retrospect they must have spent years in the internment camps during the war though I wasn’t even aware of their existence until years later.
The first thing my mother would ask about any of the kids I met was what their last name was. Names contained a world of information for her. It was her primary way of classifying people. She could instantly tell you what nationality people were and she had strong notions about the traits of each group. There was an irony in all this that I didn’t realize until I was much older. My mother’s maiden name was Doris Bishop. First of all, her father was the only one of his siblings that was a Bishop. The rest kept their father’s name of Bishoff. Second, mom was born Dora but took the name Doris when she went to work at the age of fourteen because Dora was obviously Jewish as was Bishoff.
And I was also startled after my father died when I saw his birth certificate. He was born Jacob. I had always know him as Jason. I hadn’t learned until I was a teenager that his father’s family name was not Bloom. My grandfather took that name when he came to the United States in the late 1800s. Where it came from nobody seemed to know. There was a story, probably apocryphal, that he saw a billboard advertising a dentist named Bloom. Who knows? He came from around Augustow in what is now Poland. It was ruled by Russia at the time and his citizenship papers include a clause saying that he renounced his allegiance to the tsar of Russia. The family name was Werczelinski. Recently through “23 and me” my sister found another branch of the family who had discovered twelve relatives who had died in the Holocaust. It was sobering to see not only their names but their ages and occupations. It made it come to life, connect me to those horrors in a way that I had never felt before.
So both of my parents had changed their first names and both of their parents had changed their last names.
My family loved music. We all sang. It was as natural as learning to talk, nothing formal but a constant in our lives. My father had a nice tenor voice and my mother was an alto and they would sing in the car when we traveled and they encouraged us to sing from the time we were small children.
My uncle Bill, whom I loved dearly, had been a clarinet player in the Big Bands during the Depression and made a reasonably good living though I never heard him play. He was in the Navy Band during the war. In fact he was on the Battleship Missouri when the Japanese surrendered. But when he married my aunt, he agreed to give up music since it had meant being on the road. So he sold men’s suits and was very successful at it. But he played the piano, too, and when the family got together the men would gather around it and sing while the women, who were working in the kitchen, would occasionally chime in from there or if they considered one of the songs special, they would come out to the living room and join in.
Music is an integral part of being Jewish. There’s the prayer service in the synagogue, ancient melodies with a Middle Eastern flavor with its minor chords. And my folks had a few songs that they sang in Yiddish. They both spoke Yiddish fluently. It was their parents’ language but obviously they grew up with it in their homes. There were songs we learned in Sunday school. A lot of them came out of the new State of Israel. They had major chords and were bright and sometimes martial. I preferred the Old World. And even though I stopped participating in the religion itself when I was in my late teens–a major source of conflict with my father–culturally and ethically I cherish much of the impact it made on me.
When I was eight we moved across the street and there was enough room for a piano so I took lessons for about a year and a half from a stodgy woman who was encouraging but when I practiced my mother would be in the kitchen and every time I’d hit a wrong note she’d call out. It wasn’t the most conducive atmosphere for learning.
In junior high school I had the same music teacher as Sid Gordon. (Sid and I went to the same junior high, although about fifteen years apart.) The only instrument I ever wanted to play was the clarinet. Benny Goodman was my absolute hero but my parents decided, based on what the orthodontist said, that it would ruin my teeth. I was crestfallen. I couldn’t imagine playing any other instrument. I walked into Band dejected. The music teacher said “Oh, you have the perfect mouth for the tuba.” The tuba was the last instrument in the world I wanted to play. I have a lot of respect for bass players, but it doesn’t suit my personality at all. It’s not who I am. I played for a year and I did OK but my heart wasn’t in it. That was my only band experience before I came to New Horizons.
In our house records were rare and valuable things. We had a small collection and I would come home from school and sing along with anything we had whether it had words or not. I knew every note on every record. There were wonderful kid’s records: Danny Kaye doing “PeeWee the Piccolo” and Boris Karloff narrating “Peter and the Wolf.” We had Spike Jones and Frankie Lane and Benny Goodman, of course, and my parents liked light opera so there were Sigmund Romberg records. We had some classical music that included Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto at my insistence but I loved Swan Lake and the Russian romantics always moved me. And Gershwin. My Dad bought season’s ticket for my sister and me to the Children’s Concerts one year at the San Francisco Symphony.
It was mid-fifties and I begged for an FM radio so I could listen to some of the noncommercial stations that were just getting off the ground. FM was just catching on and it had better sound quality. KPFA started up in the late ‘40s. Phil Elwood had a show called “Around Midnight” and I fell in love with the theme music. I had no idea what it was, but I was just captivated by it. Every Saturday night, when I was supposed to be asleep, I would tune in just to hear the opening. It was a couple of years later that I learned about Miles Davis who was playing “Around Midnight.”
I suppose we all take our home town for granted. San Francisco is a vibrant city and while things were quiet in our neighborhood, by the time I was in high school my best friend Norm and I were aware of exciting things happening around us. Somehow when we were juniors we got a hold of Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind” when it was published in 1958. We read it aloud to each other along with “Catcher in the Rye.”
We went to a demonstration by an Indian yogi who performed unbelievable feats with his body. It was bizarre. We sat in a small auditorium full of people in suits and dresses and quietly stared at this man as though he were simply an oddly clad gymnast.
And I heard Miles Davis and J. J. Johnson on a double date at the Blackhawk Club. I can’t tell you who I was with but I’ll never forget hearing Miles live for the first time. We were in a cage for underage kids and the cigarette smoke was so thick it was like looking through a fog but I was thrilled.
I suppose I took high school for granted. I was surprised when Readers’ Digest published an article when we were juniors about what a remarkable school it was. Our principal had hired the best teachers he could find and turned them loose so we were encouraged to think critically and be intellectually curious. And the students were given a great deal of autonomy in running extracurricular activities. It was also a sports school though the athletes were encouraged to be good students. Steve Gray was named California Mr. Basketball—that’s like the best player in the state—my senior year. He went on to play at St. Mary’s and was an all-conference pick three times. He actually was drafted by the Warriors though he never played in the NBA. But one of the most remarkable athletes I have ever seen played guard on that team. He was a Korean kid, Norm Owyang, who had only picked up the sport a couple of years earlier when he came to this country. He was short—5’6”—but he set the city high jump record that year at 6’5”.
That was the other thing about Washington High. Steve was Black. About a quarter of the student body was Black. Another twenty percent or so were Asian. There was a good sized Jewish population there as well. And everybody got along. The head of the honor society was Black. The president of the student body was a Jewish girl. Asians held lots of student offices. The only fight I saw in the three years that I was there was between two girls–ugly, they pulled each other’s hair. And we all took it for granted. Were we socially integrated? Less so, but the groups were semi-porous.
When my sister was a senior she went to a graduation party and later when she told my parents that she had danced with a Black guy we were both shocked when my parents blew up. We had always thought of them as accepting people and an ugly side of them had been exposed.
Two years later when I was graduating my mother encouraged me to have a party at the house. One of the members of our group was Jualynne White, a Black girl from a military family. I told my mom that I wouldn’t agree to the party unless everyone could come. She said okay. Jualynne came with her date, the head of the honor society, and I cringed as my mother bent over backwards to be nice to them. She was so patronizing and it was so embarrassing that to this day I feel like I owe them an apology. Mom just wouldn’t let them be.
I guess I’m thinking a lot about racial issues nowadays, not only because it’s in the news with Black Lives Matter but for a very personal reason. My granddaughter’s partner is a young Black man and their daughter, my great granddaughter Avarose, just turned one on Thanksgiving Day. They live here on the property so I see her frequently and she is very dear to my heart. I worry about the future of all the kids of course but as a child who will be identified as Black, she will have additional obstacles to face.
From high school I went to UC Berkeley. It was the only school I applied to and in those days if you were in the top ten percent of your class admission was automatic. They culled people later. Only half of the student who entered graduated. And it was essentially free. By working summers and taking part time jobs during the school year I could pay for most of the cost of my books, my room and board and the small “incidental fee” that they charged which was around $72 a semester.
I had no idea what I was going to study. I had been a math major in high school but in the middle of the summer I decided that I had no desire to continue that and signed up for a smattering of courses. A year later I found myself declaring for political science but in retrospect I realized that I was driven by a need to discover what it meant to be an American. Growing up in a somewhat diverse neighborhood in San Francisco, being identified as a Jew, being raised in the synagogue as well as in the greater community, I had some sense of my own history—or I should say histories, one that went back well over 5000 years and the other that began when my grandparents came to this country in the late 1890s. There’s a part of me that has always been trying to figure out what it meant to be American. And I suppose what it means to be a human being. As a kid I sang “Oh, Susannah” and “Shema Yisroel” and I could feel what it meant to belong to the latter but I had to fake the former. I couldn’t figure out how to combine my ancestral roots in the shtetl, the immigrant experience, and the special experience of growing up in San Francisco with the world of Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers. Was my model the cantor or John Wayne? (I had a number of uncles who worked in Hollywood and I still have an autographed photograph of Roy Rogers and Trigger.)
To realize that there is more than one history is to realize that there are probably many more than two histories, many separate traditions. Academically I created an American Studies program for myself before there were such things. I took sociology classes; I studied American history; I read American Literature. I suppose it was all very impractical. I wasn’t thinking about what I would do when I would graduate. I had vague ideas about being a lawyer. I had been an orator in high school. In fact I had won a few awards in AZA, the boys’ B’nai Brith Youth Organization and went to New York in 1958 to compete in the nationals. One of the speeches I gave in high school was Clarence Darrow’s plea against the death penalty in the Leopold and Loeb case. He was a hero to me. But saying I was going to become a lawyer was having an answer for relatives about what I was going to do with my life. It wasn’t a real plan. My father was an engineer. He knew that was what he wanted to do from a very early age. I was a total puzzle to him and he often found himself very frustrated with me. I was at school to pursue my passionate curiosity. I sloughed off in classes that didn’t interest me and spent all too much time reading books that had little to do with the exams I would be taking or a future path that I could not fathom.
I absorbed. I absorbed ideas the way I had absorbed music, by being open to everything. With music it was the minor scales of the Middle East that persist in the music of the synagogue and the sometimes joyful, sometimes mournful Klezmer; the Big Band music of my parents’ generations and particularly the clarinet of Benny Goodman that I adored; the music of the San Francisco Symphony I heard with the children’s concert series; the light opera that my parents loved; the popular music of Frank Sinatra and Patti Page; the wonderful sappy sounds of “Blue Moon” and “Sincerely“ that were suddenly changed forever when “Rock Around the Clock” and “Heartbreak Hotel” hit the airwaves; the show music; the expressive , complex, seductive sounds of jazz that Phil Elwood played on KPFA; the country music, not just the popular radio music but the high pitched country voice of Jean Ritchie and the banjo music that the New Lost City Ramblers revived; the folk traditions that began to get play in the late ‘50s; the marches of John Philip Sousa. In college I had a roommate from Bakersfield who introduced me to the songs of Jimmy Driftwood, the sweet tenor of Gene Austin (editor: one of the first “crooners”. His recording of “My Blue Heaven” sold over five million copies.) and the clarinet of George Lewis.
It was an interesting time in Berkeley. The university wouldn’t burst onto the national stage politically until 1964, a year after I left, but there were already strong forces afoot. One of my freshman TAs had demonstrated against the House Un-American Activities Committee in San Francisco, an event that perhaps marked the beginning of student movements around the country. There were protests against compulsory ROTC. The student newspaper SLATE was kicked off campus for speaking out politically. I watched. I listened.
I spent four years living in a co-op. In fact I was the Work Shift Manager for a year and that paid my room and board. There was a music listening room there that had a budget. People would put in requests and every year a committee would buy new records. I would go in and listen to whatever anybody else had on: Purcell, Charlie Parker—I just absorbed everybody else’s music just as I was absorbing the ideas around me.
And when I got out of college, I had a buddy who went into the Air Force who sold me his hi-fi (not stereo), and he gave me all his records at the same time. What a treasure trove, everything from Bartok and Brahms to the New Lost City Ramblers and the Country Gentlemen.
I moved to The City and took a job as Assistant to the District Sales Manager at U S Rubber Company. It was a way to pay my bills and there was a future there if I wanted it but my mind was elsewhere. I was living at the foot of Telegraph Hill, a short walk to the City Lights Book Store and the clubs on Broadway where I saw John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Lennie Bruce, the Flamenco musicians and dancers at El Matador, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Carlos Montoya came to town and I heard him at the War Memorial auditorium next to the Opera House. There has always been a lot of exciting music in The City and I couldn’t get enough of it.
And it was around that time that I first heard Bob Dylan and the Beatles. These were guys my age saying the things that were running around in my mind.
I joined CORE (editor: the Congress of Racial Equality) in San Francisco for a year around 1964-5. It was a time of radicalization and the director, Bill Bradley, led the charge. He later changed his name to Oba T’Shaka and was a professor of Black/Africana Studies at San Francisco State University for over thirty years but before the Black Power Movement burst onto the national scene he was already moving in that direction. He was respectful but had little use for integration or for whites in the organization. I was naive, ill-informed and arrogant and he was more than happy to set me straight. We had a nose to nose confrontation one night and among other things, he challenged me to go organize the white community. That challenge sent a shock through me. I realized how dangerous that felt and though I disagreed with his rejection of integration, I realized that much of what he was trying to tell me was true, that this wasn’t a game, that I had an awful lot to learn. I ended up having a lot of respect for him and what he was trying to accomplish.
I had another experience that also impacted me. I had met a lovely, bright Black woman in CORE and we had gone out a couple of times. (Bill Bradley, in his diatribe, accused me of joining CORE to get laid by Black women. At 22 there’s always probably a grain of truth about anything to do with sex. And I think the woman whom I was dating was a cousin of his. For the record, we never had sex.) We were waiting for the Geary Street bus one night after going to a CORE sponsored event at a bar on Fillmore Street. Three Black men about my age were pushing a broken down car across the overpass there. One of them spotted me, came over and without a word punched me in the nose. I had never been in a fight in my life and my instinct was to run but I couldn’t with my date looking on so I stepped forward and went after him with everything I had. The next thing I knew he was on the ground in front of me and I was screaming at him, “What the fuck are you doing, man? I don’t want to fight you!” He looked stunned 1) because I had so easily overpowered him and 2) that I obviously had no enduring animosity toward him. I just wanted him to stop. He scrambled to his feet and left. I can only imagine that he was resentful to see a white man with a Black woman. There’s a whole lot of history there that I was totally ignorant of at the time.
I also had made friends with an interracial couple who had met organizing in the South. Walter was from North Carolina and his wife had come down from the North. They were young, younger than I at 22, and among the sweetest people I have ever known. Perhaps it was their sweetness or the fact that they were both slight in build and didn’t have an aggressive bone in either of their bodies that allowed them to sit together, a Black man with his pregnant white wife, on buses as they were leaving the South. But they had come to San Francisco for a better life.
Walter, of course, was extremely upset with the direction that Bill Bradley was taking the San Francisco CORE chapter. And it so happened that the National Core Convention was being held that year in his home town of Durham, North Carolina. He was determined to attend and protest. And I was ready to leave San Francisco. I had a dear friend in Connecticut so I decided to quit my job, get a drive-away car and move to the East Coast. I had a few bucks in my pocket and I was bored to death. I had no interest in a career in big business.
And I had heard that there was a call out for people who were willing to lobby Congress on behalf of Fanny Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She had spoken at the Democratic National Convention the previous year and had tried to get their delegation accepted and now they were attempting an equally futile task, being recognized as the legitimate representatives from Mississippi. So I drove across country in four days to Washington, DC. For almost a week I slept on the hardwood floor of a gym that was part of a church in the Black section of town. There was no place to shower, I was hot and sticky from the summer weather, getting a decent meal was not easy but being in this totally different world was quite an experience. I was among people who were mostly in their 20s and full of spirit. We traipsed up to the Capitol and wormed our way into the cloak room of the Senate one day. I found myself nose to nose (more like nose to chest, if the truth be known) with a Southern Senator who was easily twice my size. He towered over me and his girth was ample. He was cordial until he discovered what we were doing there and then he burst into fury and had us thrown out. Well, escorted out, I suppose. Nobody harmed us.
And of course there was the singing! I remember sitting on the steps of the church in the hot sun. Someone would burst into one of the freedom songs and suddenly a gorgeous chorus of sound filled the air and I gleefully joined in. It was marvelous!
I took the bus down to Durham and a taxi out to Walter’s home that was just outside of town. It looked like nothing that I would have seen in the West, neat well-kept modest houses on a dirt road. The lots were enormous by Bay Area standards, perhaps a third of an acre or more. It felt country spacious to me. I was warmly welcomed but unfortunately Walter was quite ill and would not be able to attend the convention with me.
So I went there alone and again I was simply a witness to history. It became immediately apparent that Bill Bradley was not alone in proposing a dramatic shift in the direction of the organization. At one point I found myself sitting in the back of the auditorium listening to the proceedings. There was only one other person anywhere near me, a Black man in his mid-40s who was sitting four or five seats to my left. We struck up a conversation. He explained to me in his mild, easy manner that organizations evolve and that CORE obviously was entering a new phase. Though he obviously did not favor the move, he seemed like me to be more witness than participant. He spoke without any hint of the animosity he may have felt and it only slowly dawned on me that I was talking to James Farmer, a co-founder of the organization in the year that I was born and the current director who was being ushered out by the election of Floyd McKissick. (My son lives in Durham now with his family and a few years ago I was recounting this to some of his friends who had asked if I had ever been in Durham before. They immediately recognized that name because his son, Floyd McKissick, Jr. was then mayor of Durham.)
After the convention I headed north to see my friend Skirmantas who was living in Bridgeport, Connecticut where he grew up. Skirmantas Jonas Rastapkevicius was two months older than I, born in Lithuania during the war. We met just as I was graduating college and bonded over the pronunciation of his name. He liked to drop it on people to get their reaction and then he would tell them, “People just call me Skirm” but I insisted on getting the whole thing down, pronunciation, spelling and a bit of the story that was wrapped up in it. It’s obviously not an accident that I volunteered for this story project. I’ve been eager to hear people’s stories my entire life and his was quite fascinating.
His parents were among the wealthiest in the town where he was born. They owned the largest parcel of land and his father had set up a generator to provide electricity. The family was Catholic so they had no particular fear of the Germans and while my relatives were being rounded up about 150 miles to the south, Skirmantas’s family felt relatively safe. Late in the war when the guns of the Russians could be heard and their flashes seen in the night they grew alarmed. As bourgeoisie they were in danger from the communists so they packed up and fled toward Germany with a cow and whatever they could carry. They ended up in the British zone after the war and spent five years in a Displaced Person Camp while they desperately searched for relatives in the United States who would sponsor their entry. Just when they were about to give up and go to Argentina someone responded to one of the ads they had put in the Lithuanian newspapers around the county, a relative in Bridgeport. Skirmantas was eight, living with his mother and father in the basement of their relative while they got on their feet, in school though he spoke no English.
Skirmantas was a broad chested, slim waisted charming young man with a trace of an accent and a sparkle in his eye. He seized life, embraced each day as though it was an adventure even if it just meant a drive to the seashore or to the dog pound. He loved dogs and when I arrived in Bridgeport in 1965 he had rescued a gorgeous jet black Great Dane that he had found furiously and indignantly hurdling itself against the side of the cage. Only because they knew Skirmantas did they allow him to take what seemed like a dangerous dog until it walked out calmly and jumped into his car.
I suppose Skirmantas was my Zorba. He envied me my education and fancy degree and the ideas and notions that popped out of my mouth that he only vaguely followed or cared about and I could sense how hopelessly caught in my thoughts I had become. I was drawn to his ability to live in the moment, to find joy in the ordinary. I have never loved a man so much. We were not good about staying connected over the years but I visited him in Florida a couple of years ago where he was living with a niece he had generously and unquestioning taken in when she was younger and in emotional turmoil. He had trouble hearing, trouble taking even a few steps, but the man was still there and the love between us as strong as ever. I’m sure we both knew it was the last time we would see each other and indeed he died less than a year later. It took me another year to delete his email and phone number. Just couldn’t do it.
So I lived with him and Eileen for a while, the great love of his life who unfortunately died of a stroke in 1986 leaving him devastated. I did some substitute teaching to make a few bucks and started writing, wanting to satisfy a growing itch to have my voice heard. One day I answered the phone when Skirmantas was out. The caller and I were both surprised. He was a friend I had lived with in Berkeley who was now in Boston doing work as a conscientious objector to the war. He invited me up to Cambridge where he was living and when I went, I fell in love with the area and decided to move up there. As luck would have it, one of his four roommates was moving out and in an ironic plot twist, I fell head over heels in love with the woman he was breaking up with. Within a couple of days I had a job learning to program IBM computers and within a year and a half Joyce and I were married. I was on top of the world.
That summer I quit my job and we traveled and camped as we headed toward Mexico. My cousin Steve met us in Dallas for the Mexico leg. He is fluent in Spanish and quite musical; he was my Uncle Bill’s son. He played guitar and even in high school he was teaching it. Later on he wrote and produced some children’s videos which are still around. One of them uses kitchen implements to make music, something his dad did with him and the neighborhood kids. Bill played the pied piper with his clarinet and the kids would follow him around banging on things and making music.
We went to a village in Michoacán where pretty much all they do is make guitars. Steve found one with a minor inconsequential flaw that the guy would sell for $25. He said, “If you ever want to learn to play guitar, this is the time to do it. You’ll never get a better guitar for this price.” I thought, “I’m 25 years old, how can I possibly learn to play a new instrument? I’m much too old for that.” But I bought it and while we were traveling together, he taught me some chords and because I was pretty musical anyway I picked that stuff up pretty easily. But the only reason I wanted to learn guitar at that point was to back up my singing.
We spent the whole summer on the road including a month wandering around Mexico. We stopped at Joyce’s parents’ house on our way back to Boston. Her father was ailing from emphysema but he seemed fine. However, early the next morning we were all in the living room with an EMT futilely trying to give him oxygen. He died as we looked on. I was 25 years old and ill prepared.
After the funeral we returned to Boston and found a place to live. Joyce had a job teaching pre-school and first grade in a free school in the Roxbury, the Black section of Boston. I devoted my days to writing the Great American Novel and keeping house. She taught there for two years. We were living on the edge of that community in Dorchester and after being out to the theater one night, we arrived at the Roxbury Station by public transportation only to find that the bus that usually went by our house had been rerouted. We were puzzled and when we were let off we had to walk a half mile or so through the shut off area back to our house. In the morning I found our newspaper on the front porch with the headlines announcing Martin Luther King’s assassination.
I was stunned, of course. I thought I was hardened to the realities of the times but that assassination brought me to tears. There had been protests in Roxbury the night before and that was why our bus had been rerouted. It was too dangerous for Joyce to drive in to work but after a day or so I drove her to a midway point and one of the Black workers picked her up and drove the rest of the way. Despite the wonderful work that they were doing, the free school did not survive. The funding dried up.
That was the last significant experience I had with the Black community. It’s difficult in our segregated world to cross paths with people outside of our bubble unless we make a concerted attempt to do so but hopefully those early events made me better prepared to welcome my granddaughter’s Black partner into the family and cherish their daughter Avarose.
1968 was a horrible year. Sentiment against the war in Vietnam was building. I was working with the Eugene McCarthy campaign. Robert Kennedy grabbed that torch and then he too was killed. Protesters in Chicago were crushed. Joyce’s job was in jeopardy and then at the end of the year she got pregnant. While we certainly wanted children, the timing couldn’t have been worse. I wasn’t working and the world seemed in chaos. Her mom lent us some money and I returned to Bridgeport and opened a bookstore near the university next to a leather goods shop and across the street from a boutique that Skirmantas and Eileen owned. My son Eric was born in October but we were struggling on so many levels. I was in the store six days a week but there really wasn’t any income yet. Joyce was in an unfamiliar town without much to offer her. The marriage was falling apart. She took Eric and went to live with her mother in New Rochelle.
And the world didn’t improve. The economy took a dive in January. I tried looking for computer work but I had been out of the field for two years and the computer industry was one of the hardest hit so there were experienced programmers out there looking for jobs.
And when Nixon bombed Cambodia there were student strikes all around the country. Colleges closed down, the University of Bridgeport among them. Our businesses were dead in their tracks. As you can imagine, that was a tough time for me. In retrospect I can see that I had a Major Depressive episode. At times I was barely able to function. I was drinking too much, smoking weed, doing psychedelics. Skirmantas had a pickup truck so we started a moving business and picked up jobs that nobody else wanted. We moved a couple of cast iron stoves from the second floors of apartment houses, a pool table, a piano. We were young and strong, proud of our ability to lift but that was hard work.
My cousin Steve and a couple of his friends had enrolled in a yearlong masters’ program in education at Harvard and were heading down to the Everglades for a winter break and asked me along. I didn’t realize it at the time but that trip began my lifelong love of birding. When we returned they invited me to live with them in Boston, so I sold what was left of my inventory from the bookstore, paid my bills and left. Tough year. I felt a lot of shame about not being able to provide for my wife and child and my attempts to see them were just too painful. Joyce had found work at a Friends school in Brooklyn. After a while she remarried and asked that I allow her new husband to adopt Eric. I agreed. It would take me a few years to get back on my feet and start to connect with him but over the years I have managed to do so and he and his family are very dear to my heart.
My return to Boston was difficult. I was lost, paralyzed. Slowly I reengaged the world. I joined a street theater that was protesting the war as it continued to drag on and out of that came an audition with the Theater Workshop of Boston that led to the only professional gig I’ve had as an actor. The writer and director got into a fight and the production never made it to the stage.
And I ran across one of the people I had met in the McCarthy campaign. His wife sang and was learning to play banjo. She had organized dinner and musical gatherings every Thursday night and I got an invitation. Perhaps it was music that saved my sanity. After a year we organized a communal house that lasted a couple of years. One of the better guitar players generously tutored me. (He committed suicide a couple of years later.) I played six or seven hours a day. I practically stopped singing for a while because it was too difficult to do that and concentrate on the guitar at the same time.
But I was still restless and unsettled. In the summer of 1973 I decided to hitchhike around the country. I headed north with a guitar and a backpack I borrowed from Skirmantas, crossed into Canada and headed west, getting some good rides, entertaining people occasionally with a repertoire of songs that was now over two hours long. I stopped in Vancouver where my father had grown up and stayed with an old friend of his before heading south along the coast to San Francisco where I briefly stopped to see my family.
My journey back took me to the Grand Canyon where I entertained folks around a campfire and the next morning at sunrise listened in absolute quiet to the whoosh of the wings of a raven as I sat on the rim of the canyon. I traveled through Native American country including a night in a Navajo village when I was picked up by a young man who took me to a Native American bar in Gallop, New Mexico where young men spilled out into the street and were loosely surrounded by a cordon of police officers, then let me use a trailer in front of his home if I promised to leave before his mother got up because she would be very angry if she found out that he had let a white man sleep there. I got up at dawn but my attempt to quietly exit was disturbed by a pack of dogs that surrounded me and barked loudly while I tried to remain calm as I walked among them and out to the road. No one in the village stirred.
I headed for Western Pennsylvania where my cousin’s friends had found teaching jobs and stayed with them through the fall, winter and spring as chief cook and bottle washer while I performed in the local little theater group and played music at coffee houses, and once at a large gathering of thousands where I got booed off the stage by bikers who wanted rock music, not some folk singer playing an acoustic guitar.
I was looking for a place to go backpacking the next summer. My buddy Randy was a fly fisherman and had a map of Idaho, a favorite spot of his. In the middle of Idaho is the Idaho Wilderness Area. (editor: It is now called the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness and covers 2.367 million acres.) The Middle Fork of the Salmon runs south to north. It’s a very popular place for whitewater rafting. I figured there must be a trail there.
I bought a cheap guitar that I wouldn’t be afraid to lose and hitched to Stanley, Idaho where the Wilderness begins. I was carrying 80 pounds and the first couple of days made me examine both my sanity and my determination but I continued on. I remember sheltering under a tree on day two or three wrapped up in my waterproof parka in the pouring rain with tears flowing.
While the river has a lot of traffic, I was a lone backpacker. (There was someone along the river who kept track of such things and when I passed through he told me that there had been over a thousand people who had floated the river but I was only the 7th backpacker.) Mostly I didn’t see a soul. Occasionally rafters waved and I got to know one of the tour leaders who fed me a couple of times in exchange for entertaining the folks after dinner. I had only taken seven days’ worth of food but I had a fishing rod, so I ate trout every day and picked a lot of blueberries.
News filtered in from the outside world. I felt a little as I imagined people in the West had a century earlier before there was tv or radio or even a good mail system. Watergate was happening and I learned four days after the event that Nixon had resigned.
For seventeen days I followed the river but during the last five the trail climbed to a fire tower (where there was a spring and a huge bush with round juicy blueberries) then dropped to the mouth where it met the main Salmon. Mostly I was alone with myself and the natural world. The only voices I heard were the ones in my head, whatever demons and angels that I had brought with me. They wrestled mightily but gradually calmed and faded. The depression that had continue to plague me dissipated. The world came into calm focus. It was transformative.
One of the last rides I had gotten before I entered the wilderness was from a couple of guys from Idaho Falls who were going to the White Cloud Mountains. They were buddies who had gone to school together and now worked in the same agency, one of them in an alcohol program and the other one setting up a drug pilot project. They were enthusiastic. “You gotta see these mountains!” So I had spent the weekend with them and when they dropped me off they said, “When you get out of the Wilderness, you should come back to Idaho Falls and we’ll show you around.”
So I went to Idaho Falls and, of course, they were a bit startled to see me but they graciously took me in and showed me around. After the first day I realized that if I stayed another 24 hours the fellow who was setting up the drug program was going to offer me a job. Small town, very few people who even had a college degree. And indeed he hired me. My now 46 year long career had begun. I am a firm believer in happenstance and how it can dramatically change our lives. It’s happened to me more than once but certainly this was the most significant.
I found a small farmhouse north of town where I lived for two years growing vegetables in the summer, shoveling snow and toting coal in the winter. The Mountain States were like a foreign country to me. I had lived on both coasts and felt like I fitted in there. I had a hard time reading these folks. They were neighborly, often generous so I didn’t feel alienated but I realized that the social cues were different from what I was used to and the first year I was there I was puzzled a lot.
It was soon apparent that I had found my life’s work and you cannot imagine how grateful I felt for that. At the end of two years I was ready to return to the Bay Area and see what was there for me, perhaps get my master’s degree and a license. A rather dramatic event hurried that process. The Teton Dam, an earthen dam built on the Teton River, collapsed. The wave of water from the reservoir it contained wiped out the small town of Sugar City, part of Rexburg and was bearing down on Idaho Falls as I was obliviously driving back into town from a trip to California. I arrived just after dark but couldn’t get to my house because it was located where the road dipped down to a low spot between the river and the irrigation canal. Both the road and my house were under water. Even when I returned the next day and went into the house the water was waist deep. My time in Idaho was clearly over.
One thing was easy. I had few possessions to take with me when I returned to the Bay Area. Looking around for work and a job, I happened across a community mental health center in Martinez and went up to the fellow who was repairing the steps. I asked him about work. He turned out to be the outgoing director and—what do you know—they were looking for someone to run the place.
So I was hired on but in those days they were chopping state funding and the job only lasted a year. Again I was at loose ends for a while, though now I had unemployment. My lady friend and I spent three or four months driving up and down Highway One and camping. I fell in love all over again with that whole section of Northern California.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. I was interested in learning more about how the body influences the mind, so I enrolled in massage school, got my license and worked as a masseur for a few years, eventually earning enough money to put myself through a master’s degree at Hayward State and with my experience in Idaho got a job in a Drug and Alcohol program in Pacifica where I stayed for four years.
A New Life
And then in 1984 I met Bridget. Constance Demby was a new age musician who was adept at turning sheet metal into wonderful sounding percussive instruments. She had teamed up with a classical guitarist whom Bridget was taking lessons from for a workshop of improvisation and fun in Sonoma. I brought my guitar, we flirted a bit but I had no clue that she was interested until I got a postcard from her a few weeks later.
After two years of long distance dating Bridget and I quit our jobs and set off for Asia for nine months. This was really her trip and she invited me along. Her father had died and left her some money, her daughter (now the grandmother of our dear little Avarose) was just off to college and Bridget was ready for an adventure. She had always wanted to go to Nepal so we began there. On our first night in Kathmandu we heard music at about 4am coming from the street. We went downstairs and climbed the wall to get out of the hotel compound which was locked up. Out in the streets there was a religious celebration with music and dancing which we followed down to the river. It was magical.
We spent about three months in Nepal. Twenty-five days of that involved a trek around the Anapurna Circuit. The east side had just been opened so the villages were largely unchanged by the modern world. A few had no electricity at all but those that did were limited to a couple of hours a days and then only two or three days a week. It was like going back in time. The lowland thatched houses gave way to stone houses and walls, Buddhist chortens and prayer walls. Majestic snowcapped peaks well over 20,000 feet loomed above us. We crossed an 18,000 foot pass. We dipped into a valley where we looked down on a sole farmer who was driving an oxen-driven plow and from more than half a mile away we could clearly hear him whistle as he worked, one beautiful lilting sound in an otherwise silent world. It was like hearing the sound of the raven’s wings at the Grand Canyon.
We were traveling on the cheap, allotting ourselves $10 a day per person. We went south to India for three and a half months, a fabulous experience although India is hard to travel in. We were in buses and second class railroad cars traveling among Indians not Europeans or Americans. Northern India was tough; there are both saints and sinners up there. In the South we found people much friendlier.
And everywhere we went we heard music. In Nepal a street musician entertained the children on a primitive three stringed fiddle while he sang familiar songs. In Rajasthan the street musicians were elegant and their stunningly beautiful melodies brought me to tears. In Cochin there were elephants in the streets adorned in Shiva Festival regalia and a band with instruments you would never see outside of India: brash horns that blared like the elephants and tubular drums they smacked and thumped and twanged on both ends. There was religious opera at one of the shrines. We saw kathak dancers and Bharatanatyam, their intricate classical form, heard dazzling, hypnotic performances on sitar and tabla.
We went on to Bali where we met friends from Boonville. The culture is built around art and dance. Sculpture is everywhere. It adorns the buildings and the bridges. And the stunningly beautiful dance is accompanied by gamelan music, definitely an acquired taste for Western ears. There were Ramayana Monkey Chants and shadow puppetry performed behind a screen in front of a flame that heated an already sweltering night.
We went to Thailand. We spent a week in Burma which was open to tourism for a brief moment before the military clamped down again. We returned to Nepal and spent a month trekking. But unbeknownst to me I had picked up hepatitis and started getting symptoms up in the mountains. By the time we hiked and took a bus into Tibet I was getting pretty sick. Despite my growing weakness we had wonderful experiences visiting a few of the ancient monasteries that had escaped the widespread destruction when the Chinese took over Tibet. There were a few left, one in Shigatsi, another in Shagar, and when we got to Lhasa we were able to explore the old Jokhang Monastery and the Potala. I went up to the roof of the monastery to take pictures and a work gang of women was repairing the surface, tamping in rhythm and chanting. Somewhere I have a recording of their mesmerizing voices.
But even while we were there, the Chinese were taking over businesses right in front of our eyes, kicking the Tibetans out and replacing them with Han Chinese. Later when I was in the hospital in Chengdu for six weeks recovering from hepatitis, one of the doctors told us that a buddy of his had wanted to change professions which was not allowed in China at the time. But they made an exception for people who were willing to relocate to Tibet. They wanted to send as many people there as they could in order to outnumber the Tibetans and wipe out their culture. So his buddy was able to become a journalist by going there.
We spent six weeks in the infectious disease hospital in Chengdu, quite a fascinating experience since we were able to get to know the two doctors who spoke English and Bridget was befriended by some of the wives but by that time I was ready to come home.
For three days our train crept through spectacular scenery to the coast where we hopped another to Hong Kong. Bridget wanted to look around but I couldn’t get on a plane fast enough. On the flight home I found myself listening to an unfamiliar song about going back to California, tears streaming down my face. Although it was the most marvelous trip of my life I was more than ready to be home.
So we returned together to Bridget’s home in Sonoma County where she had been living since 1971. The trip had not always been an easy one for us, touch and go between us at times if the truth be known, but we came out of it a couple. Trial by fire. I got work with the Family Therapy Center but within a year was in private practice and I reconnected with some people in Berkeley who invited me into the Berkeley Men’s Center for Counseling and Psychotherapy. I’m still at it. I had cut back a lot but I’ve been busier since the pandemic hit though I am Zooming.
Music continued to draw me. I became associated with the Redwood Men’s Center here in Sonoma County and they had a conference every year on Memorial Day weekend, a tradition that continues to this day. Doug von Koss, a graceful, charismatic, loving man now in his late 80s, was a constant fixture there leading singing and chanting. He helped establish a weekly group in Sebastopol that I participated in but the attendance dwindled and it couldn’t sustain itself. Still wanting to sing, I looked around for another opportunity and saw a call to audition for the Chamber singers out of the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma so I went to try out. Nina Shuman sat at the piano and put me through a number of exercises. She was very encouraging. She told me that I handled the break as well as anyone she had heard. I was flattered but too embarrassed to let her know that I had no idea what she was talking about. I’d been singing all my life but didn’t understand the mechanics of it or how I had learned to do what I did. In any case it seemed to serve me well. While I felt somewhat overwhelmed being among people who had sung in choruses all their lives and who could sight read, they were welcoming and I worked my ass off to keep up with them. It was a wonderful experience that I stuck with for a number of years and was saddened when Nina died of cancer.
But one summer our granddaughter had to choose an instrument to play in school and knew that I liked the clarinet so she asked me to learn with her. We took lessons together and at the age of 69 I was playing the one instrument I had always wanted to play. After six months I went on line and discovered the New Horizons Band. I called Lew and was fortunate that he was running a Start Up Band at the time. And six months later I was sitting with the third clarinets in the regular band. Everyone was so warm and welcoming and helpful. They expected nothing from me. “Can you follow what we’re playing?” one asked. “You can? That’s a great first step. Try playing the first note in every measure.” Now ten years later I have a yeoman’s proficiency and am sitting among the second clarinets or will be when we return.
And Bridget and I have continued our wandering ways, chasing birds around the world and photographing them, satisfying our need for adventure, and finding music that has enriched our lives. We were in carnival in Trinidad one year where we were blasted out by a 100 plus piece steel drum band. In Antigua, Guatemala I was transformed as the ethereal sound of a boys’ choir echoed through the Iglesia de San Francisco during an afternoon rehearsal. In Quito, Ecuador the pan pipers made me want to dance. In Merida, Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula we happened on a festival where the joyful musicians and dancers delighted us. When we took my then twelve year old grandson to Bhutan two years ago I was literally brought to tears sitting in a room with young monks who played ancient instruments and intoned equally ancient prayers. (Our planned trip with his younger sister to Madagascar and Botswana last year had to be postponed because of the pandemic but we’ve rebooked for December.) In Edinburgh last year street musicians entertained us and a superb Black dance company performed an original piece about a miners strike in South Africa in a lovely old auditorium that was financed by Andrew Carnegie. I could certainly go on.
In the ‘70s when the I Ching and Tarot cards were the parlor games of the time I was sitting around one night with friends and someone suggested that we pick a Tarot card that we felt represented who we were. For me it was The Fool, a manboy who is distractedly reaching for a butterfly in wonder as he steps forward, his foot obliviously hovering at the edge of a cliff over thin air. All too many times I have tumbled. Sometimes my fall was cushioned, occasionally I got seriously injured, and every once in a while a guardian angel would swoop in and turn disaster into a delightful new path. Fortunately I have also inherited from both my parents a practical, pragmatic approach to life that balances other tendencies but I wouldn’t trade my foolishness for anything.