Lake Abert, above, is along U.S. 395 in southern Oregon, about 80 miles east of Klamath Falls and 75 miles north of Alturas, California. I passed by during a trip with my dad in October 1990. I remember it was a Friday evening, and we’d had a full day of traveling south from Lewiston, Idaho, with one significant misadventure along the way. We’d locked the keys in our rental car when we were about 50 miles from the nearest town. It was cold and starting to snow a little. My solution, which I’m not too sure I’d improve upon now, was to break one of the rear windows to get back in. One discovery that led to was that our Ford Taurus got about half the normal gas mileage when you drove at highway speeds with a broken-out window. The effects of increased drag, I guess. We stopped at a town along the way — John Day, maybe — and got a piece of cardboard that we taped in the window opening. That was enough of a closure that the mileage went back almost to normal for the rest of the trip.
We stopped at Lake Abert, which for a long time I believed was Lake Albert, around sunset. We had a ways to go, since the next motel was in Alturas. The light was beautiful, of course, and the way I remember the scene, it was completely still and silent. I took eight shots for a panorama with whatever little film camera I was carrying. The developed prints have been shuffled from one drawer to the next for 30 years. But in a fit of archival exploration, I grabbed them, scanned them (30 years of dust and grunge included) and panaroma-ized them in an application called Hugin (neither Lightroom nor Photoshop recognized all eight shots as part of the same scene for whatever reason).
I didn’t see until just now, as I looked for information on the lake, that the moment we captured was in a sense a fortuitous one. In the early ’90s, Lake Abert went into a decline attributed to agricultural water diversions and climate change. Water levels have dropped; salinity levels — Lake Abert is Oregon’s only “hypersaline” saltwater lake — have risen. That’s a combination that caused a sharp drop in brine shrimp and other organisms in the lake’s waters; that in turn triggered a decline in the number of water birds visiting and nesting at the lake.
When Kate and I got married, a rainy December evening in a past century, we ended the day by dropping into a bar that had been part of our courtship: The Albatross. The bartender, Bob Johnson, broke out a bottle of Cook’s to celebrate the occasion.
At one point in my early Berkeley wanderings, when I had a dozen addresses in half a dozen years, I lived about three blocks from the bar. I became a little bit of a regular, playing darts there and joining a softball team the bar sponsored. Later, a group of friends and I persuaded Bob, who along with his brother Val owned the place, to let us in an hour early on Friday nights so we could sit around a table in back and read “Ulysses” aloud. After Molly Bloom had breathed her final “Yes,” the group continued for awhile, going down to the bar to read poetry.
One Friday, the theme was baseball poems. Kate and I had just started going out, and she came with me. I only remember two poems from that night. Our friend Bill Joyce read “Ty Cobb Poem,” by William Packard (“…there is one question that usually never gets to be asked: who was the greatest major league baseball player of all time the first man who was voted into the Hall of Fame whose mother took a shotgun and killed his father during the first week of this player’s major league career?”)
The other poem from that evening that’s stuck in my brain is “Casey at the Bat,” because Kate, my date, performed it from memory. Wow! There may have been no joy in Mudville, but there was at our table. She won the hearts of all within earshot.
There were many other evenings at The Albatross. Kate and I would usually sit at the bar and talk to Bob or Val — I don’t remember them ever working together — and partake of The Bird’s proto-pub-bites gastronomical specialty, “muffies.” I guess they were a sort of pig in a blanket, a sausage of some kind swaddled in dough, precooked and heated to perfection in a secret room just behind the bar. Bob and Val also countenanced outside food, so sometimes we’d bring in plates from Everett and Jones, just down the street on San Pablo Avenue. And there was as much freshly popped popcorn as you wanted, for free.
Then the Johnsons sold the place in the late ’90s. We ran into Val once or twice afterward, but we saw Bob at his next stop, Berkeley Espresso, in a new building that had been put up at the corner of Hearst and Shattuck, fairly often. Kate and I asked about him at the cafe last year, and one of the long-time employees there told us he passed away a few years ago.
Now The Albatross itself is about to be history. The place has been closed since mid-March because of the plague. Its current owners announced earlier this week that they need to be off the premises by Nov. 30 because of “money running thin, no foreseeable re-opening date due to the ongoing pandemic, and new rent demands from our landlord.”
We hadn’t been down there much in recent years. After the Johnsons sold it — a full generation ago, for goodness’ sake — it got spruced up, expanded its hours (it had always opened at 8 p.m.), got a license for hard liquor and drew bigger and bigger crowds. Our infrequent drop-ins weren’t bad experiences, except for the one really awful Irish coffee I was served when Brennan’s was on its last legs and I was looking for alternatives. I think the last time I went in was for a Sunday night pub quiz with my son Thom and a few of his friends several years ago, and it was a blast to see how big and enthusiastic the crowd was (plus, we came in second and won some still-unredeemed drink tokens).
As I said long ago in writing about Brennan’s decline, a bar’s closing is a small loss in the big scheme. But it’s still a loss — of community, of a place that may have put a little bit of an imprint on you. (A friend, King Kaufman, said in remembering The Albatross that “it’s where I saw the only graffito that ever made me laugh out loud. I saw it on the Saturday night of Easter weekend, and it said ‘Easter’s cancelled: They found the body'”).
My own nostalgic feeling reminded me of “Bilbao Song,” a Brecht-Weill number we got to know as kids on a record by Will Holt. Play us out, Will. …
Bill's Dance Hall in Bilbao, Bilbao, Bilbao
Was the greatest dancehall in the world I'm sure.
There you could for just a dollar whoop and holler, whoop and holler, whoop and holler,
And do a lot of things I wouldn't call so pure.
All the same, I'm not so sure that if you'd gone there you'd have liked it - 'twas a special kind of place.
Brandy laughter hit you at the door.
Blades of grass grew right up through the floor.
The moon shone green through a roof of glass,
And the music that they played there had such class!
(Chorus)Ah that Bilbao moon, when love was worth your while,
Ah that Bilbao moon, when people lived in style,
Ah that Bilbao moon, where did the time all go?
Ah that Bilbao moon, I guess we'll never know.
I'm not so sure you would have liked it, ah but then,
It was the greatest, it was the greatest,
It was the greatest place on earth.
Bill's Dance Hall in Bilbao, Bilbao, Bilbao,
Has re-opened under different management.
Lots of palm trees, lots of ice cream, very flashy, very flashy,
But you know, it's not the same establishment.
Now I'll bet if you walked in you'd feel at home,
That is, if potted palms are just your style.
No grass is growing on that modern dancefloor,
The moon shining through the roof is just a moon,
And the music that they play there is the kind you'd never ask for.
Ah, Joe, play me that old time tune!
I don't know
and I don't know
what to do about it.
There was just a point
where I lost heart for judgments
and was swept into
the voluptuous, harrowing complexities
composing a single breath.
—Jim Dodge, Rain on the River
It’s the day we have an apparent victor in the presidential race. As a journalist working for a middle-of-the-road outlet that doesn’t hold with political activism — not something I’m arguing with for the purposes of this post — I’m not given to broadcasting opinions on the record. This preserves an appearance of fairness in the way I approach my work. Not to say that the appearance is an illusion, because being open to new people, facts, ideas and opinions, to listen, to try to understand them, weigh them, judge them and convey them fairly is central to the work.
But having developing a habit of thought like that also makes me constantly check myself and my own conclusions and to approach many — most?— claims I encounter in the world with at least a little skepticism. So on a day like this, when so many people around me — friends, family, community — are celebrating, I’m not inclined to join in the party.
As I wrote a friend earlier, my pessimism is not to be easily tamped down, and I think the celebrations are a little premature given the reality that our defeated incumbent seems determined to put up a fight before acceding to the will of the voters. Foremost in my mind are fears about what the next chapter of the election battle — the recounts and the court fights — will look like and how much damage the disappointed loser can still do to the government and our democracy while he still controls the levers of power.
The net effect is a little corrosive to any sense of joy I might have. Yeah, the celebrations are ongoing, and it’s good to see the people around me relieved and happy. I just can’t stop myself from thinking, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” As my friend said in regard to the current occupant of the Executive Mansion, “Two and a half months is a very long time for a wounded sociopath of his magnitude to occupy the presidency.”
This is an old blog that has mostly outlived its relevance, if any, though I know in the back of my mind it’s out there and every once in a while I’ll read back on something and think, “Not bad” or, “How the heck did I miss that typo?” I still write the occasional post, though only a handful ever get any readership to speak of.
The site still gets lots of comments, though — spam comments, by the dozen every week, most promoting some sort of fly-by-night Viagra site or athletic shoe site or transparently dumb money-making scheme. I’m sure all of them are the product of bots of some kind that spit out nearly random words and hit enter, then move on their relentlessly mindless way to the next rarely visited site. Because there’s a spam filter on the comments, they don’t get published. It’s a small pain to go through and delete them all from the filter queue; that’s not something I need to do, really, it’s just sort of a rote, mechanical chore, and I only read enough to make sure there’s not an actual comment hidden amid the garbage.
Taking a look at the spam queue last night, I realized that perhaps I’m being too harsh in my judgment of comment quality. After all, it’s usually quite complimentary of the high and very helpful nature of everything I’ve ever published. So, as I delete the latest mini-volley of spam comments, here are some of the choicer ones:
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I came across the photograph below in the excellent slideshow the Los Angeles Times posted summarizing two days of protests and associated unrest in the city. (The slideshow is part of the Times’ running story on the George Floyd protests. The large version of the image is here.)
To my eye — and I’ve got one good one — this is a thrillingly beautiful image. The combination of the deserted freeway (with the completely jammed adjacent lanes visible), the skateboarder in perfect focus, the police vehicles out of focus down the slope, the spectators on the overpass in the background recording the scene: such subtly balanced elements.
And it’s just a moment. It passed in the smallest fraction of a second. The skateboarder was in motion, no doubt, and everything else, including the photographer (the Times’ Wally Skalij), likely shifted slightly, too, before the next frame fired.
The skateboarder’s relaxed body language belies the urgency and strangeness of his situation. There’s more assessment than defiance in his stance. I have no idea what he was headed for, what he was thinking, whether he was looking for an escape route, or whether there was any way off the freeway without getting arrested. The whole scene kind of reminds me of Steve McQueen trying to outrun the Germans in the motorcycle sequence in “The Great Escape.”
Last, reality has been suspended here. A man engages a photographer in a space that neither would ever inhabit together except in the midst of a catastrophe. The tragedy that brought both of them to this spot is dimly visible here in the flashing emergency lights in the distance. But the pain and rage sweeping over the city and hanging over the world beyond, the police officer throttling the life out of a man on the pavement, the terrible indifference to the dying man’s pleas, have been pushed nearly out of sight. For just this moment.
There is something I love about this picture. Something about pride and camaraderie and self-awareness, maybe, in what must have been a hell of a difficult situation. And then there’s the kid posing with this group of GIs.
But before I get into that, where did this picture come from? Someone posted it on Facebook, in the Oakland history group, as a Memorial Day tribute, I think. The picture was captioned there “A 1945 picture of Soldiers in Oakland, CA.” As commenters quickly pointed out, the background in the shot suggests someplace in Europe — France, or Italy maybe — but not Oakland. And then there’s the kid posing with the group. Maybe these troops were among those who had just liberated his town from the Germans.
Is there some way of nailing down who and where these men are? I’d love to see whether anything is written on the back of the photo. It’s a holiday, though, and I have no idea whether the library that holds this photograph has been open at all during our lockdown the last couple of months. Maybe I’ll find that out tomorrow.
There is one potentially helpful detail in the picture: The numbers on the right side (left side in the picture) of the truck’s bumper: 3A-444Q.
My guess was that “3A” stands for “3rd Army,” the force that Gen. George Patton commanded and which is renowned for, among other things, its rapid push across France in the summer and early fall of 1944, after D-Day. Then maybe the 444Q stood for — what? A regimental unit?
I found a post — because you can find a post about just about anything when you go looking — that helped sort out the truck number. It includes a picture of vehicles attached to the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, originally part of the 3rd Army. The markings on those vehicles read “3A-442-I.” From there, I just looked for names of units numbered “444.” I came across a mention of a 444th Quartermaster Truck Company, described as a segregated, all-black unit.
Where were they deployed during the war? It appears they were attached to the 3rd Army’s 4th Armored Division in France and Germany in 1944 and ’45. They’re cited as having played a role in several major actions: Arracourt, the Battle of the Bulge and the final Allied offensive into Germany in March and April 1945. They were likely part of the legendary “Red Ball Express,” responsible for supplying the 3rd Army during its race toward Germany.
The Bulge Bugle, the official publication of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Inc., mentioned the 444th in its May 2005 edition:
“… Many an unsung deed of heroism, endurance and devotion to duty were quietly chalked up by the Third’s QM truckers. They rolled on unceasingly through German strafing, bullets, artillery fire, ice and snow, fatigue, hunger, blackouts and every other imaginable obstacle.
Trucks of the 444th QM Truck Company moved the 4th Armored Division from the Saar to Belgium in 17 hours. In their usual fashion the 4th Armored Division fought their way through to relieve the heroic bastion of Bastogne and the tide began to turn in our favor. …”
I can’t find a lot more on the 444th. A couple of records concern company members who died during their service and are buried in cemeteries in France and England. One document concerns a soldier who was convicted of murdering a German civilian during the last month of the war. Somewhere out there, there’s an Army publication called “How the 444 Rolled,” but I can’t find any evidence of it online or in libraries.
Looking at that picture, though, makes me want to know about the men there: what they had come through to get to that street, wherever it was; what they went on to; what was waiting for them in the United States when they got back from a brutal tour of duty. On the off chance anyone who knows more about the 444th comes across this, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can track down the original of the picture to see if there’s anything on the back.
This has been the month of butterflies. We had a stand of milkweed in the front yard, Asclepias curassavica, or what I’ve heard called tropical milkweed. According to this source, it’s native to many islands across the Caribbean and parts of South America and introduced here in California. Monarch butterflies are partial to this plant, as well as other varieties of milkweed. This particular species is believed to pose a problem for the butterflies, though. It doesn’t get cold enough here in the winter to kill the plant. So the leaves and anything living on them survive from one butterfly season to the next.
One of the things that might live on the leaves is a parasitic protozoan called Ophryocystic elektroskirrha. Called OE in the world of monarch studies, the parasite can be debilitating, causing deformed wings in some monarchs and weakening others. The biological consensus seems to be that OE is everywhere. Adult monarchs carry it and deposit it on plants where they feed or lay their eggs. Eggs can be infected. More commonly, monarch caterpillars become infected when they eat infected vegetation, and infected caterpillars metamorphose in their chrysalides to infected adults that continue the cycle.
We didn’t know from OE when I picked up those plants a couple years ago. And we didn’t know about it when I grew a bunch of new plants from seed last year and planted them in the front yard. (We also didn’t know about a lot of the other surprisingly commonplace organisms that can come along and kill monarchs, either, but that’s another story.) By last fall, we had read about OE. But we left the tropical milkweed standing because, well, it was there and no monarchs were around.
But late in the winter, there was some monarch mating activity we didn’t witness. By late March, monarch caterpillars had appeared in the milkweed. I only saw a few at first, but over the coming weeks, we counted about 40 of them in our small milkweed patch, all seemingly at a similar stage of development. They systematically devoured the leaves on one plant after another until they had stripped all the milkweed bare.
Then the caterpillars migrated to various spots around the front entrance of the house. Kate counted 30 chrysalides by the time the great pupation was finished. The stumpy remains of a pomegranate bush was the most popular chrysalis site. But we also found them on our mailbox, on one of the pillars of our front porch, on the porch stairs, on a stalk of fennel, on random pieces of wood, and next door on a neighbor’s bicycle lock cable, dog leash, fence and gate.
A couple weeks ago, they started emerging. Twenty-five so far, we think. (Kate, the science teacher, has mapped and charted the location of each. She’s also interested all the neighborhood kids in what’s going on, so we sometimes have a sort of free-form, socially distanced classroom in the front yard.)
Since we knew about OE and its effects, we were a little concerned about the condition of the butterflies that would emerge from all the chrysalides. All but about five have appeared to be healthy, emerging with no problems, all parts intact, and flying off very quickly after their wings dried.
What about the rest, the ones that have not appeared healthy or died before they emerged? Well, there’s another story there. Complete with actual butterfly names. To be continued.
A couple of days ago, the phrase Rancho Mariposa came into my head while I was describing the parade of monarch’s appearing on the estate here.
“Mariposa” is Spanish for “butterfly,” and it’s a street name here in Berkeley and over in San Francisco and I’m betting in many, many other towns. The name has been stuck on a Sierra foothills county, on that county’s biggest town, and on a creek that runs through both. “Mariposa” was apparently first used as a California place name there.
It’s easy enough to imagine how the name came to be. Someone saw a bunch of butterflies somewhere and was inspired to name the place for the insects. You hope for a more particular story, and there is one in which butterflies aren’t lovely, fragile ephemera but a memorable nuisance.
An 1806 Spanish expedition struggling through an unattractive stretch on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley encountered an unattractive-looking stream. A priest with the party, Pedro Muñoz, recorded what they found there.
September 27: In the morning we crossed the river and, taking a northerly direction, we pushed through about a league of very high, thick tules, in the midst of which could be seen a few clearings well covered with grass. After traveling about three leagues, more or less, we stopped at a stream which runs from east to west. It has no running water, only a few pools, where we were forced to pitch camp. From the point where we left the tule swamps to this place the land is really miserable. Salt flats and alkali patches, with innumerable ground-squirrel burrows are all that one can see. There are at this spot about sixty oak trees and a few willows in the bed of the stream. The forage was extremely scanty, and that the country appeared to have been burned over by the Indians did not conceal the fact that the land is very poor. Consequently there is little pasturage.
This place is called the Mariposas, “the butterflies,” because of their great number, especially at night. In the morning they become extremely troublesome, for their aggressiveness reaches the point where they obscure the light of the sun. They came at us so hard that one of them flew into the ear of a corporal of the expedition. It caused him much discomfort and no little effort to get it out.
On Fairfax Avenue just north of Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles. The Leader sign is attention-getting — it got mine, anyway, when Kate and I were strolling past last March —but what is/was it about?
Answer: From 1946 through 1989, the building housed a well-known and very busy beauty shop. The L.A. Times ran a very good story on its closing: Nothing’s Permanent: Fairfax Beauty Shop Closing After 43 Years. If you’re too busy for the link, the driving factor was rising real estate prices, and the family that ran the business cashed in on their property.
The July 1989 story notes that two-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood were going for about $950 a month.