Road Blog: Impulse Trip to Seattle


At Safeco Field: Ken Stutz, Pete Cafone, me.

In Seattle, a trip planned on an impulse a couple of months back. I came up here because a guy I used to work with at the San Francisco Examiner, Pete Cafone, mentioned on Facebook he wanted to see the Mariners play at Safeco Field.

I’ve seen Pete all of three or four times since I left the Examiner early the morning of January 2, 1996, when I completed my final shift and went on to a Web startup. (It is hard to believe that was nearly 20 years ago, but here I am walking around with a bunch of people my age all saying the same thing.) The last time Pete and I met was at a memorial/celebration for a copy editor we’d worked with, Courtenay Peddle, who died several years ago of kidney failure, the last of a series of health crises that began almost immediately upon his retirement.

At work, Pete and I weren’t particularly close. I worked a series of newsroom desk jobs while he was one of the evening editors in sports. He seemed loud, tough and funny; he seemed to be a hard drinker, not that we ever drank together; he was from Philadelphia; I knew his birthday was on Christmas; and he liked to talk. Anyway, we got along, and in the few times we crossed paths, it was always good to see him.

So Pete and I aren’t really best buddies. How did it happened I offered to meet him up here for a game — not exactly a casual trip?

I see Pete’s posts on Facebook. He’s detailed a long series of road trips he’s taken since he took a buyout from the San Francisco Chronicle six years ago. More recently, he’s recounted a series of health challenges of his own. Here’s what he posted on March 22:

Pete, aka Mr. Positive, has some negativity to report, something we seldom do. As most followers of these postings know, Humpty Dumpty was recently put back together to restore his plumbing to its original form. Unfortunately Humpty has cracked in 3 places and the leakage has created numerous infections — including cdif, an infection in the colon — over the past 5 weeks. As a result, early this coming week we will have our 5th operation in the last year and a half since the first one on Halloween 2013 to remove a rectal tumor. The plan calls for a return to an illeostomy bag while the current mess gets cleaned up and heals. Mr. Positive expects to recover well & soon enough to go on an 11-day trip to Alaska starting May 18. The first 6 days will be on a cruise out of Vancouver, the next 4 on land which includes a fantastic train ride and stays at 2 different spots in Denali National Park and the final day is set for Safeco Field in Seattle to see the Mariners against the Indians. Safeco will be Pete’s 29th baseball ballpark of the current 30 in use — leaving Miami’s new park the only one still to go (we saw a game in the old one the last year before they moved to the new one). So as you can see, there’s no time to be lamenting the latest setback. It’s on to new frontiers.

On the surface, sure, that’s a pretty graphic medical report. You got any pictures to go with that?

But there’s a lot more there, too: frankness, courage, optimism, and joy in new adventures are the first things that come to mind. And without really thinking about it too much — or at all — I found myself making plans to meet Pete up here. Just as a gesture, I guess, in admiration of all those qualities; and also because I knew it would be fun and because I hadn’t seen a game up here, either.

One final piece of this journey fell into place a couple of weeks after Pete’s post. I was having lunch with another friend, Garth, in early April and mentioned I might be coming up to Seattle. When I told him what the trip was about, he said he had a connection for Mariners tickets. He got us four seats in the lower stands, right by first base. All I really had to do was show up and make sure the tickets were at will call for Pete.

The evening was beautiful and I never had to put on the jacket I brought. Pete was with his friend Ken Stutz — Ken’s father gave Pete his first job back in the mid-1960s at a local paper in Burlington County, New Jersey, and Ken is a veteran of sports desks in Philadelphia and San Jose. We kept score, though the slick paper in the Mariners program wasn’t easy to write on. Pete bought me a beer (he stopped drinking years ago). Then the game was over (though not before the Mariners’ closer, Fernando Rodney, did his damnedest to cough up a two-run lead). Before the post game fireworks started, Pete and Ken left for the parking garage so they could beat the mob out of the park.


Along the Road: Leonidas Taylor and the Steamer Belle


Again, from our recent trip to Woodland: Headed from Woodland toward Sacramento, Old River Road is a levee highway, generally keeping to the top of the embankment separating the Sacramento River from the flood plain to the west and south. If you like seeing the river, the surviving remnant of riparian landscape and the adjacent farms — orchards interspersed with fields ready for row crops — it’s a beautiful drive.

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I’m guessing about halfway between Woodland and Sacramento, you pass the obelisk above. It’s along a stretch of 55 mph highway, meaning much of the traffic is faster, and the pullout is minuscule. We ran past it heading south toward Sacramento, then turned around and pulled in heading the wrong way up the road.

The obelisk is a memorial to a young Philadelphia native named Leonidas Taylor, one of the many victims of steamboat disasters/mishaps in mid-19th century America. He was clerk aboard the steamer Belle, which, according to newspaper accounts from the time, left Sacramento at at a little after 7 a.m. on February 5, 1856, and headed up the foggy river bound for Red Bluffs (today, it’s Red Bluff, singular). That’s roughly 120 miles in a straight line, and one would guess about 150 river miles. About 40 people were aboard.

About an hour later, 10 miles above Sacramento, the Belle’s boiler blew. The explosion obliterated the front half of the 75-ton sternwheeler, flinging passengers, cargo and wreckage into the Sacramento. The Belle sank quickly. The papers reported about half those aboard were killed in the blast or drowned. Here’s how the Sacramento Union described the toll:

From the most reliable information obtainable, we cannot learn that there were over forty souls on board. Of this number, however, we fear that a great proportion are no longer in the land of the living, and there is little probability that their names will all be recorded, save in the registry of Heaven. This deplorable tragedy, as well it might, has cast a deep gloom over our city.

Among those whose name was known was Taylor — referred to in the early press accounts as Alonzo Taylor. His family reportedly offered a $500 reward for recovery of his body. Today he is unique among the Belle casualties in having a permanent roadside monument that passers-by snap pictures of and blog about.

The obelisk, said to be of Italian marble, was put in place about eight months after the Belle blew up. Here’s the item from the October, 7, 1856, number of the Union:

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And yes, that’s precisely the inscription we read when we stopped on Old River Road a few weeks back — weathered but clearly visible. The monument itself is a little different from what the Union describes. The base is neither 5 feet square nor 5 feet high, and the shaft is about 10 feet, not 13. I’m guessing that the needs of various road makers and levee builders over the intervening 159 years have probably led to some alteration in size and location. Still — pretty surprising to me that it has survived for so long. I’m tempted to go out to the spot next February 5 to see if there’s some little ceremony out there.


Along the Road: West Sacramento


Earlier this month, Kate and I drove up to Woodland, a town west of Sacramento, to check out some pickup-truck campers. And since we were up there near the Sacramento River, we took the opportunity to explore a little, driving east and south on Main Street, then Old River Road, to West Sacramento.

We stopped at the junction of Old River Road and Yolo County Road 126 so I could take some pictures of the Sacramento Weir — a structure designed to let high water flow from the river just north of downtown Sacramento into the Yolo Bypass. So I did take some of those pictures of the bypass, which hasn’t had water flowing through it in several years.

But there was also this roadside memorial, for one Jesus Martinez Mora, who died in a traffic accident on this stretch of road in March 2009. Here’s the story from the Sacramento Bee:

The man killed in a fiery two-vehicle crash Monday night in Yolo County has been identified as Jose Jesus Mora Martinez, 65, of Sacramento.

Robert LaBrash, Yolo County’s chief deputy coroner, said cause of death remains under investigation.

The crash occurred on Old River Road about 7:15 p.m. just south of County Road 126 and west of the Sacramento River, said Robert Lagomarsino, a California Highway Patrol officer.

Witnesses said a 1997 Chevrolet pickup truck, driven by Martinez, speeding south on Old River Road, failed to negotiate a curve, Lagomarsino said.

The vehicle went onto the shoulder and spun toward the northbound lane and into the path of a 1996 Toyota Corolla carrying four people, including two babies.

The driver of the Toyota was John Ostergaard Jensen, 25, of Woodland. His passengers were Adrienne Day, 24, a 1-year-old girl and a 3-month-old, Lagomarsino said.

Ostergaard Jensen braked when he saw the out-of-control vehicle but struck the truck’s right side, causing it to flip onto its roof and burn, killing Martinez.

The Toyota also caught fire, but all four people inside escaped. Ostergaard Jensen and Day complained of pain, and Day suffered an abrasion to her shoulder. The two children suffered minor injuries.

It’s easy to see how something bad could happen at this spot. The approach from both directions is straight and fast, followed by a short, compressed S turn with a marked 35 mph speed advisory. While I was standing there, I saw a couple of drivers struggle a little to keep their cars in their lane.

And just out of curiosity, I checked for media accounts of other accidents at the same spot, and found these:

February 2013: A motorcyclist loses control on the curve and slides into group of pedestrians.

October 2014: Husband and wife killed in motorcycle crash after losing control on the curve.


Death and Life in the Sunday Obits

Sometimes on Sundays, I’ll go through the newspaper obituaries. I generally don’t have time during the week to do that, and I may be reverting to a family habit of perusing “the Irish funnies.”

I’m not looking for anything in particular. I notice ages — between the San Francisco Chronicle and the conglomeration of papers published by the Bay Area News Group, I found three recently deceased centenarians. I take special note of people my age or younger who have died recently; there are more and more of those.

One obit from last Sunday stood out for me. I won’t mention the name, but it was for a man who had died a few days after his 50th birthday. The death notice was accompanied by a picture showing a robust guy with a handsome smile.

I’m morbidly curious about cause of death, especially for someone who died relatively young. Did cancer get him? That information wasn’t disclosed. But the obit hinted at something disquieting. Here’s how it begins :

[John Doe] passed away April XX, 2015. Let’s get one thing out there. [John] was no fan of turning 50. He often talked about the monumental birthday as the other side of life, the decline. We talked a lot about it at family gatherings and how life is so much more than an age. But he was stubborn. And, in this case, he really wanted to be right.

The way I read that — go ahead, call me too ready to jump to conclusions — is that this man took his own life and that whoever in his family wrote this notice did a remarkable job of framing the event without coming out and uttering the agonizing truth. There’s some other evidence to support that conclusion in some of the remembrances attached to the online version of the obituary.

But of course, maybe that’s not what happened at all.

There was a very high-profile Silicon Valley death last weekend, that of David Goldberg, the CEO of an online survey company and husband of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. That news item went rocketing around the Bay Area, but it was conspicuous for its lack of detail. Here was a 47-year-old man who died suddenly, whose family announced its shock at the passing (on Facebook, no less), but said nothing about how he died or even where he died.

Not that that’s anyone’s business, necessarily. But when you put the word out there, people will wonder what the heck happened. I think that’s as much out of simple empathy as it is out of anything lurid or morbidly curious. I think most of us substitute ourselves into a situation: How would I feel if that tragedy had befallen me, my spouse, my child, my parent?

Anyway, I wondered whether Goldberg had taken his own life, and I said as much to Kate, who gets to listen to way more of my hypothesizing than anyone should have to.

I brought this up when I went to work, in my public radio newsroom in San Francisco, on Monday. To my surprise, virtually everyone was having similar thoughts. There was a strong shared feeling that the lack of details was strange, that the family was reluctant to say what the manner of death was, and that manner of death might well have been suicide.

Of course, details did emerge. And they were terrible and tragic — way beyond but also very different from our speculation.

And the lesson there is — what? Not to speculate? To leave people alone with their grief? No. I think it’s in human nature to wonder, and simply wondering is a far cry from prying. Being curious about death, about how people died, about the lives they led — I think all that’s natural, too, and nothing to be ashamed of.

The ritual of the obituary is a two-way communication: We put out word to family and friends about the death of a loved one and in some corner of our hearts hope the strangers who scan the death notices will see the merit in the life whose end we’re observing. And being curious about those strangers’ lives is a way of honoring that life. Or can be, anyway.