Behind Door No. 1, a $12 Billion Train. Behind Door No. 2 …

Comparisons, anyone?

Brightline Holdings, a company developing high-speed train service from Las Vegas to the L.A. area, broke ground the other day on a system it says will cost $12 billion. The 218-mile route will include four stations. The company says it will begin service in 2028, in time for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

We’ll see how credible those estimates and promises are, but in a state notorious for obscene infrastructure cost overruns and project delays, the promise of a working train system from scratch in four years seems miraculous. (Yes, hear a voice says, “If it sounds too good to be true. …”)

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation’s Authority’s project to extend BART six miles through downtown San Jose currently carries a price tag of $12.7 billion. Given the project’s shocking recent price escalation, no one will be too surprised to see the cost rise further. And as the price goes up, the VTA keeps pushing the extension’s forecast opening date further into the future. Once upon a time, the agency talked about the line opening by the end of this decade. Now it’s scheduled to start carrying paying passengers in around 2037. 

No particular point here — the facts alluded to above are well known. But no one I know has called out the similar cost estimates for the two projects, which are very different in almost every other way. Brightline will run down a highway median on the surface, for instance. The BART route through downtown San Jose involves a deep, five-mile-long tunnel, construction beneath an urban center, and working in a region where property acquisition costs are extreme, among other differences.

But even given all that, you naturally wonder whether one of the projects here is exceedingly skillful at stretching dollars and the other, not so much.

Birthday Chronicles and Travelogue

Cutting to the chase: I just turned 70. To celebrate the occasion, Kate and I came to Chicago (where I’m writing this) to visit family and friends. A brief travelogue:

April 1

We flew from San Francisco to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The first minutes of that flight take you over Oakland or Berkeley. On our April Fool’s Day trip, we had a nice view of the soon–somewhat desolate-looking Oakland Coliseum and Arena complex — former home of the Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors (and soon-to-be-erstwhile home of the Oakland A’s, who will decamp to Sacramento as they await construction of a stadium in their alleged eventual home in Las Vegas).

April 2

The big day. Thanks to my sister Ann and her husband Dan, I got my name in lights. We had a great time, including a trivia quiz in which I stumped the room by asking which two rivers merge to form the mighty Illinois River.

April 3

It was rainy and cold, with some intermittent snow flurries, our first three days in Chicago. I think my big activity of the day was driving my brother John to the airport for his return to Brooklyn. The picture? A local resident schools neighbors on automotive etiquette. This day also featured a visit to Pequod’s Pizza on North Clybourn.

April 4

The El, along North Franklin Street, encountered during our hunt for Italian beef.

On Thursday, the 4th, it was dry and a little warmer with occasional splashes of actual sunshine. Our son Thom was getting ready to fly back to Los Angeles. But first: We needed to find Italian beef sandwiches. First stop: Mr. Beef, on North Orleans, a place you’ll kind of know if you’ve watched “The Bear.” The restaurant was closed to accommodate film crews working on the show’s third season. Our backup spot was Al’s Beef on West Taylor Street,

April 5

On Friday, the 5th, we went down to the south suburbs to meet one of my high school writing teachers, Mort Castle, and his wife, Jane, at Aurelio’s Pizza in Homewood. Did I remember to take a picture of this Crete-Monee High School reunion? No. And neither did they. Later, Kate and I wound up at the Izaak Walton League’s Homewood Preserve. Note blue skies and evidence of direct sunlight.

April 6

On Saturday, the 6th, we drove out to the Fox River valley to see my high school German teacher and longtime friend Linda Stewart. She moved back to the town of Geneva, just up the road from her hometown of Aurora, in 2023. Also pictured: her dog, Pecan.

April 7

On Sunday, the 7th, we joined the throngs traveling to view the total solar eclipse happening the next afternoon. Our destination was Indianapolis and the home of my high school friend Dan Shepley and his wife, Paula. I had discounted the possibility that there’d. e a lot of traffic, but heading down Interstate 65 from northwestern Indiana, I discovered how naive I was. Stuck in one especially gnarly traffic jam north of the Kankakee River, we got off the interstate and made most of the trip on two lane roads heading south and east. Among the casual sightings along the way, a wind turbine being erected south of the town of Monon. We made it to Dan and Paula’s eventually.

April 8

Eclipse Day. We hung out at Paula and Dan’s all day. The sky show lived up to the hype, and the show on the ground, featuring neighbors who turned the event into a partym was good, too.

April 9

On Tuesday, the 9th, we wended our way back to Chicagoland, sticking to back roads until we suddenly realized we needed to get on the interstate (I-55 in this case) to get back in time for an online appointment Kate had.

April 10th and 11th? To be continued …

How Helper (Utah) Got Its Name, and Other Stories

Helper, Utah, and environs. (this is on the northern outskirts, and according to some maps, this was part of a hamlet, or maybe just a siding on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, called Martin at some time in the past. Maybe the locals still call it that.

In October 2022, I took a driving trip that took me to Salt Lake City, Moab, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, among other stops. I took U.S. 6 between Salt Lake and Moab. The route heads south and east and along one stretch descends through a striking piece of landscape called Price Canyon. At its southern end, the canyon levels off and widens into a valley, where you’ll find the town of Helper. I stopped at the outskirts, walked around a little, and took a few pictures. I posted one to Facebook, and a friend who commented asked where the name of the town came from. Never one to let the opportunity for a bit of research pass me by, here was my answer:

Hi: I took note of your comment on Facebook wondering where Helper, Utah, got its name. It turns out not to be a super-long story, unless I can turn it into one. 

The short version is this: The town started out as a small settlement at the point where a rugged piece of western topography called Price Canyon (and the Price River that flows through it) open into a little valley where Teancum Pratt, the hard-luck son of one of Utah’s Mormon pioneers, settled around 1881. About the same time as Pratt’s arrival (with his two wives and seven children; eventually he and his wives had 17 children, and he did prison time for his plural marriage), the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, was laying out a route down Price Canyon. Trains traveling up the canyon — to the northwest, toward Salt Lake City — faced a long grade, about 1,700 feet in 15 miles. The railroad chose a site near Pratt’s new homestead for a station where it would position extra locomotives — “helper” engines — to enable Salt Lake-bound trains to make it up the canyon. So there it is. “Helper” became the name of the community that grew up around the station. I think it’s at least as good as “Prattville.” 

When I drove through there, what I noticed was the spectacular route through the canyon and the striking cliffs surrounding the town (along with the sign of the Balance Rock Motel). It’s almost too much to slow down enough and contemplate how the world we’re moving through was shaped. When I manage to do that, I’m always surprised and often pleased in a way by what I find. 

On the outskirts of Helper, Utah.

For instance, this guy Teancum Pratt. There seem to be lots of little capsule histories that name him in reference to Helper, but none that mention much of his personal experience. I describe him as “hard luck” after reading just a little of his journal. Among the episodes he describes in narrating his life before Helper, here’s one from his teens: 

“In my 15th year, I had the misfortune to lose half of my left foot, which was frozen off while working for George Higginson. I was driving a freight team of 2 yoke of cattle. It was winter. We made it to Salt Lake City before Christmas. Mr. Higginson sent me on to Lehi Fields with both teams of cattle. This took me all day and night, and by morning I was frozen badly. Mr. Higginson treated me badly, being fed on bread alone and not enough of that.”

And here’s a summary of events just before he dragged his clan to what would become Helper: 

“I found that my physical strength was not sufficient to endure hard labor and about the last of June, 1880, I came to the conclusion that I would go out to the frontier and take up land and either sink or swim in the attempt to maintain ourselves. So hearing of Castle Valley, I struck out and came to Price River on the 24th of July, 1880, coming down Gordon Creek from Pleasant Valley and locating at the mouth of Gordon Creek. But the neighbors were hunters, trappers, and bachelors, and soreheads and did not welcome any settlers, so I had a very tough time of it and had to leave that location and moved up to what is now Helper, at that time a lovely wilderness, and commenced anew in 1881.”

Pratt found that the land he had settled wasn’t particularly fertile, and among the various ventures he embarked upon was coal mining. Coal is still a big deal in that area of Utah — Helper is located in Carbon County, which is still a major producer (and has been involved in recent years in trying to build a coal port in Oakland). Mining drew lots of people, money and union organizing to Helper and environs.

And crime, too: In 1897, just up the canyon from Helper, Butch Cassidy and associates managed to hold up the payroll manager of one of the coal companies who had come down on the train from Salt Lake City to pay miners.

And of course, all that just barely scratches the surface of the past of this one place. What transpired here before the “settlers” wandered in? Maybe I’ll get to that. 

Conclusion of seminar. Hope all’s well with you as autumn draws on. … 

‘Intelligent and Sympathetic Reaction’

Even after having spent my entire professional life editing — alongside some reporting and a few other desultory wordsmithing endeavors — I often feel like I’m still trying to get the hang of it.

For instance: On the streaming series “Julia,” a wonderful retelling (and embroidering) of the story of Julia Child’s emergence in the early 1960s, one of the main characters is her editor at Knopf, Judith Jones. She appears in many scenes looking over manuscripts from the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and John Updike. Those scenes are meant mostly to show her tireless devotion to her work. But I see something else. Watching her, I wonder about the strength of character, the discrimination, the literary skill and the sensitivity to writers’ egos it would take to have the confidence and certainty to edit the work she was editing. It takes a certain kind of boldness to offer or even substitute your judgment and understanding for that of a creator. Every time I see her cross out a line or write a suggestion, I think about that boldness and the kind of tension that would arise when the author reviews her work.

That tension is at the heart of a documentary I went to see last year with my friend (and writer) Jon Brooks. The movie is “Turn Every Page,” and its the story of Robert Caro’s half-century-long working partnership with editor Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb worked with Caro on “The Power Broker,” the landmark study of the career of New York’s singular highway and housing autocrat Robert Moses. And after that, Gottlieb handled Caro’s multivolume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. As Caro says, he is currently at work on the fifth volume of a projected three-volume work. Gottlieb died last June, and Caro labors on without him. Lots of Caro’s readers wonder whether the final volume of the Johnson series, which will deal with LBJ’s successes in the realm of civil rights and his tragically misguided commitment to the Vietnam War.

But back to the subject at hand, editing. Here’s how Gottlieb described it in “Turn Every Page”:

“Editing is intelligent and sympathetic reaction to the text and what the author is trying to accomplish. … Basically, it’s expressing your reaction, and that works if the writer really understands that you’re in sympathy with what he or she is doing.” I should add that later in the movie, he also says “Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.” (Elsewhere, Gottlieb once described book editing as “a strictly service job … Your job is to serve the book and the writer.”)

As I said at the beginning, after 50 years or so futzing around with words, I feel like I’m still learning. And that insight into being the intelligent, sympathetic listener in service to the writer and the book (or the story) hits home with me.

Descanso: Highway 128

Yesterday, we attended a memorial for a friend up in Davis. It was a Quaker-style remembrance, where the three dozen or so people in attendance were invited to share their stories about the departed. Most of the stories were quite surprising to me — I learned a lot about this person’s life I really had no clue about, though we’d known each other since before high school. There was a lot to process.

I was really at loose ends afterward and just felt like a drive. So we set out. I have to say here that Kate, my wife and frequent exploration partner, did the greatest thing: She didn’t ask once where we were headed. We were just going, heading west, enjoying the light of a beautiful October afternoon.

I got to know the backroads in this part of the world — the western edge of the Central Valley, the hills and mountains on the way to the coast, Yolo and Napa counties, among others — while doing long-distance bike rides from the late ’80s through about 2010. So that led me toward Winters, a little valley town west of Davis, and up Highway 128 past Monticello Dam. This slice of countryside is much different from my riding days. Much of it has burned at least once in the past decade, with the greatest acreage by far incinerated during a series of lightning-sparked fires in the summer of 2020. Now, huge swaths of the landscape are marked by the skeletons of burned oaks and laurels and I don’t know what else. It is stark and sobering.

A roadside memorial on Highway 128 southwest of Monticello Dam in Napa County. It reads: “Rojo. Descanza en Paz. 03 21 2021.”

A few miles past the dam and a little resort called Markley Cove, we happened across this cross. There’s a good pullout a hundred yards or so down the road, so I stopped. But it’s at a tight spot on a curve with limited visibility for both drivers and anyone foolish enough to walk on the side of the road where the cross was erected. Kate was a little dubious of me going over to photograph it; she had a view around the curve and said she’d honk if cars were coming.

As it happened, after I took this shot, I could hear the sound of a car approaching … from somewhere. I didn’t hear the horn honk, so I started out into the road. Looking to my left, two or three cars were approaching. Not bearing down on me, exactly, but close enough that I felt I needed to hurry up across the road. I guess one of my ambitions in life is to not have one of these markers put up in my memory.

As to the person memorialized by this marker, here’s a snippet from the Napa Valley Register of March 21, 2021:

“A fatality was reported Sunday evening after a collision involving a motorcycle and another vehicle in the Lake Berryessa area, according to the California Highway Patrol. …

“A passenger on the motorcycle suffered minor injuries, as did the driver of the other vehicle. … The name of the motorcyclist was not immediately available.”

The CHP’s report includes a few more details: The motorcycle was headed west when it crossed the highway’s centerline and sideswiped on oncoming pickup truck. The motorcycle driver was 29 years old. It’s not lost on me that the date of the crash inscribed on the cross, March 21, was the birthday of the friend whose memorial we were attending.

As the cross in the picture says, “Descanza en paz.”

Vanishing Point

I learned last week an old friend, someone I’d been very close to in our intense teenage years, someone whom I’d tried to keep track of in the years since, through difficulties we’d both suffered in our lives, had passed away suddenly. “Vanished” is the word that comes to mind when I think of her death.

I thought of the picture above because I shared it with her a week or two before I last heard from her. I mentioned my eye is always drawn to the vanishing point. “That’s otherworldly,” she said when she saw the image.

One moment this person was alive, someone I imagined myself speaking to in an endless conversation. “Endless” in the sense that you know their voice is out there in the world and you’re always happy to hear it again.

The next moment, they were part of the past, silenced, beyond reach except for wondering about their last days and months and all the parts of a life they’ll never get to tell me about.

In whatever world she finds herself now, or in no world at all, I hope she’s found peace.

For Bigness and Excitement, It Has the Right to Be Called ‘Colossal’

A friend sent me a link to the movie trailer below — for “The Colossus of Rhodes.” It was made in 1961 and is listed as the directorial debut of Sergio Leone, who found his niche a few years later remaking Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.”

After seeing this preview, I don’t think you need to see the movie. The script for the trailer: a tour de force of overheated verbiage. The delivery: Bombastic and utterly credulous.

Over the course of two and a half action-packed minutes, you’ll encounter a pagan fortress, a city of sin, cruel warriors, devil worshippers, a raging fury of ecstasy and terror, a fiendish torture chamber, Dario the Daring, a beautiful princess, desire, treachery, a thousand towering thrills, the hall of the living dead, the infamous chamber of orgies, a cave of wild beasts, sinister barbarians, a slave revolt, a mob gone mad, depravity, and an awesome holocaust. (The film itself is two hours long and earns a surprisingly positive 56 percent Tomatometer rating at Rotten Tomatoes.)

Summary: “Colossus of Rhodes” is one motion picture that for bigness and excitement has the right to be called “colossal.”

The full script:

The fabulous Colossus astride the harbor of Rhodes, City of Sin, a pagan fortress with an evil purpose. 

Behind its eyes, cruel warriors watch the devastation they have wrought within its walls.

The temple of the devil worshippers, as the great god Moloch incited followers into a raging fury of ecstasy and terror. 

And behind the wicked heart of the Colossus, the fiendish torture chamber. 

Yet fighting back against terror like this was almost sure death. But one man gambled his fantastic strength and power: Dario the Daring, portrayed by Rory Calhoun, star of “The Texan,” racing at the head of a band of reckless horsemen.

Defying the treachery of a beautiful princess: *(Princess:) “Don’t you have the sense to realize you’re in danger?” (Dario:) “Who would look for me here at this time of night?” 

Sworn enemies, these two,  but still drawn together by their desire for each other.

“Colossus of Rhodes” is one motion picture that for bigness and excitement has the right to be called “colossal,” with its thousand towering thrills:

The Devil’s Cauldron, where slaves were forced to labor in the bowels of the earth. 

The hall of the living dead, where a kiss sprung the trap that led to the Cave of the Wild Beasts.

The infamous Chamber of Orgies.

The Arena — terrifying coliseum where sinister barbarians made sport of human agony and human sacrifice evoked the cheers of the crowds.

And as the crescendo of terror rose to a frenzy, a voice: “People of Rhodes! The Colossus you built is now a nest for the traitors!”

The slaves revolt. The people rise to join them. A mob gone mad with the realization of where their depravity has taken them until nature itself looses its fury — an awesome holocaust to destroy the evil all around.”

Your American Mass Shooting Calendar

This week marks the anniversary of a couple of recent mass shootings: The massacre of innocents in Uvalde, Texas, last year, and the slaughter of transit workers in San Jose two years ago. Naturally there will be coverage of the anniversaries. We’ll revisit the trauma. We’ll hear hopes and prayers that we’ve learned something about how to prevent similar tragedies.

The anniversaries made me think about how many dates mark major mass shootings. I kind of had it in the back of my head that you could make up a calendar of all these episodes where, when you look back just a little way, you could see the hundreds of lives taken, the thousands upon thousands altered forever, at the whim of well-armed strangers. What I had in mind was something like the Roman Catholic calendar of saints’ feast days. Or more darkly, one of those “page-a-day” calendars. This one would be “A Massacre a Day.”

It sounds like fun of the grimly ironic sort, if you don’t think about the people involved. But when I sat down to write down the incidents I recall off the top of my head — starting with one in 1966 and then continuing through those that occurred over the many years I’ve been in newsrooms — there’s little irony and no fun involved. The most sobering thing is that there have been so many of these mass killings in recent years that each new one seems to be making less of an impression.

Here’s the list, in calendar order — 36 separate dates (which, just. to be clear, I had to look up). I suppose the really grim thing about this is that if you searched a little and went beyond the most notorious recent and historic incidents, you’d probably have no problem filling up a 365-day calendar.

The Fifth-Grader’s Picture File: The Browns

Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and Bernice Layne Brown, 1965.

It’s a little strange to look at this as a long-time Californian (or at least a long-time Californai resident. Are they the same thing?).

Pat Brown was a really important figure in state government through the mid-1960s, and there are several things I immediately associate with him: the State Water Project, for instance, and California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. And the fact he took office in a period where the state was growing like crazy. But what, specifically, would have made me, a fifth-grader in the Chicago suburbs, write the governor’s office for a picture? Maybe I had heard mention of him as a potential running mate for President Johnson in 1964 (yes, I would haver been paying attention). Maybe I heard some other news item or an approving remark from my parents. I have no real idea.

This arrived in the mail in March 1965 — probably the same week that I got the first picture in my collection, the portrait of Otto Kerner. Brown was in his second term, having beaten Richard “You Won’t Have” Nixon (to Kick Around Anymore) in 1962. Standing for his third term as governor, he wasn’t so lucky. In 1966, Brown lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, winning just three of the state’s 58 counties (San Francisco, Alameda and Plumas).

How did he come by the nickname Pat? This is what he said during a 1982 oral history interview:

Brown: It was 1917 when I was in the seventh grade they had these four-minute speeches for the sale of Liberty Bonds. We had to write a speech and then we had to deliver it. I’ll never forget that I made the speech and I ended up by saying, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and the kids at school started calling me “Patrick Henry” Brown. It’s an amazing thing how they shortened it to “Pat.”

Q.: How did you see that at the time, as derisive or as something that was …?

Brown: Oh no, it was friendly, very friendly. It usually is when they give you a nickname. It was a fortuitous thing that happened because I think “Pat” Brown helped me later on in political life. It gave me an Irish connotation which was really somewhat undeserved because I was half German and half Irish.

Of course, I should mention Bernice Layne Brown, the governor’s wife, also pictured above. She and her husband were both San Francisco natives. Her official biography mentions that they eloped to Reno when they were in their early 20s. The short writeup also says this: “Bernice was ambivalent toward politics. The Governor’s Office confirmed this in a 1960 press release which stated, ‘Mrs. Brown frankly admits she never would have chosen a political career for her husband if the choice had been hers to make.'”

Not mentioned in the official biography: The Browns were parents to the state’s longest-serving governor, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. But you knew that.

From the governor’s office postal meter: “California: The nation’s leading state.”

From My Big Pile of Old Baby Boomer Stuff: Governor Otto Kerner, 1965

Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, 1965.

The way I remember it is I was home from school — I was a fifth-grader at Talala School in Park Forest, in Chicago’s south suburbs. I’m sure I was bored and looking for something to do — I wasn’t that sick. I was as interested in politics as any fifth-grader — well, not counting my former classmate Billy Houlihan, whose father, John J. Houlihan, was getting ready to run for the Illinois House of Representatives (he won and wound up serving four terms). I’ve forgotten my specific motivation on the long-ago day in question, but I sat down and wrote a letter to Otto Kerner, who had recently begun his second term as governor, congratulating him on his victory and asking for an autographed picture.

The portrait above, with a short letter acknowledging my note, arrived a week or two or three later. I was inspired, and a hobby of sorts was born. I started writing to other politicians who were in the news: Edward Brooke, the Republican Massachusetts attorney general who became the first popularly elected Black U.S. senator and the first to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction; Pat Brown, the Democratic governor of California; Nelson Rockefeller, the “liberal” Republican governor of New York.

Soon, I started going down the list of members of the U.S. Senate. The notes I sent were brief and to the point, written in my imperfect Palmer method cursive on a sheet of blue-lined notebook paper: “May I please have an autograph of Governor X or Senator Y?” — not much more than that. I was pretty unaware of the politics of a lot of the senators whose portraits I was requesting. So I sent away for pictures of Richard B. Russell of Georgia and John McClellan of Arkansas, two of the staunchest segregationists in “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” (Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate,” the third volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, is an effective antidote to that “greatest deliberative body” nonsense.) But I also wrote to Bobby Kennedy’s and Gene McCarthy’s offices.

After collecting about 60 or 70 of these signed pictures, I got bored with the project. I was still passionately interested in what was happening in politics — in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, especially — but the interest took other forms: going with my mother to the weekly peace vigil at the post office in Park Forest, for instance.

What is there to remember about the man in this particular portrait?

Kerner became a national figure in 1967 when President Johnson appointed him to lead a commission studying the causes of the widespread riots of that summer — the ones that always come to mind were in Detroit and Newark. The resulting report unflinchingly concluded that the nation’s long history of white racism, oppression and abuse of Black people drove the 1967 uprisings. (“What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”)

The report was a little too unflinching for Johnson’s taste, and he declined to publicly endorse its conclusions or support its call for a sweeping program of investments to address the effects of past discrimination.

Still, before Kerner’s second term as governor was over, Johnson nominated him to serve on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But Kerner’s undoing was not long in coming: He was indicted in 1972 for conspiracy, income tax evasion, mail fraud and perjury. The indictment said that early in his first term, he had agreed to set favorable racing dates for a Chicago-area horse track in exchange for stock in the track, which he later sold at a significant profit. Kerner was convicted on 17 counts. On appeal, all but four of the counts, all for mail fraud, were thrown out. But he was sentenced to three years in prison — a sentence that was cut short by the discovery he was suffering from lung cancer. He died in May 1976.

Kerner’s New York Times obit mentions that some supporters never believed he was guilty, and many others remained sympathetic to him after his fall. A few months before Kerner died, the Times reported, “Chicago journalists organized a ‘newsmen’s testimonial dinner to Otto Kerner.'”

“‘We like the guy personally, no matter what he’s done, and we thought it would be a shame if someone didn’t do something for him,’ said Steve Schickel, a television reporter for station WLS-TV. “