Sunday, March 29, 2015

Here and there

Just over a year ago I set out to find the house covered in my last post, as well as our East Virginia Street duplex in Phoenix and my grammar school on Indian School Road. I was able to locate Longview School by finding Country Club Estates through which I walked each school day. In fact, I passed Barry Goldwater’s house each time. That was when he was known as an owner of Goldwater’s department stores and was not yet the Republican juggernaut he became. I drove around the western perimeter of the gated community, hung a right and there stood Longview, much altered but clearly the place of my sixth and seventh grades and first girlfriend, Linda Munell. Years later Linda re-entered my sphere as a rock and roll groupie who was bedding my sax playing roommate.

Longview, an Osborn Education

In my day schools had open campuses. It's where you played pick-up basketball and Little League. Now it's all chain link and no trespassing signs.

Locating the East Virginia duplex to which we moved in the summer of 1952 was problematic since the old neighborhood was cheek by jowl with mid-century duplexes, a couple of which might have been our digs. The one shown here feels right. Our's was the rear unit.

The duplex on East Virginia
The duplex was a couple of blocks from North Phoenix High School where I spent many an hour watching track and field meets. North Phoenix coached by Verne Wolfe was a track and field powerhouse in the fifties, spawning the likes of Dallas Long, the Olympic shot-put champion and world record holder who matriculated to USC, and Jim Brewer, the first high schooler to top fifteen feet in the pole vault also went to USC. I remember when he broke the barrier and shortly thereafter saw my Tempe High schoolmate Don Jeisy become the second teen to go fifteen feet. Coach “Chief” Wynn was so worried about Don’s nerves that he lied about the height of the upcoming vault telling him it was a measly 14’-10”. I was next to pit and an accessory to the crime. Don became a marine officer and educator after a stellar track and football career at Arizona State. He was the first alternate in the decathlon at the 1964 Olympics. You’ve heard the term “man among boys.” That was Don.

The stadium at North Phoenix High
It was a trip to Alamos, Mexico in 1951 that led to our move from northern California to Arizona. My mother had seen something in Sunset magazine about a quaint silver mining town at the western end of Copper Canyon. The Nicky Hilton article extolled the charms of the little known Spanish Colonial village. It was so alluring that by summer we found ourselves in Alamos. Rather quickly I cobbled together some rudimentary Spanish and led tourists through the place for a few pesos. A highlight of my tour was a visit to the hacienda of the Jumping Bean King. You can’t make this stuff up. I still recall the busy beans jumping in my ten year old palm.

The hotel on the plaza had a drive-in courtyard as I recall. Our room was upstairs facing the courtyard. Drinking water was “treated” by resting it in earthen “ollas” suspended from the portal. Many an evening was spent at the cine watching John Wayne and Esther Williams movies dubbed in Spanish.

Either on the way to or back from Alamos we sat in the lobby of the long gone Santa Rita Hotel in Tucson. The lobby was redolent of leather. Real ranchers held court and repaired to the Rock Mountain Oyster Club upstairs. I was enthralled. To this day the smell of leather and straw hats grabs me. In the corner of the hotel was a western wear store where I got my first cowboy boots, kangaroo no less. If Alamos sunk the hook the Santa Rita hooked the fish. We were off to Arizona pronto. 
Much to her credit and notwithstanding my antipathy toward her, my mother exposed me to culture, cuisine and travel that created a view beyond the neighborhoods in which we lived. From our Oakland apartment we took to bus to Berkeley to see Helen Keller speak at the University of California followed by lunch at Larry Blake’s.  In Phoenix we took the bus downtown to hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Phoenix Union High. 

A department store portrait in Oakland about 1948

San Francisco also looms large in my look back. It was there that I saw “Swan Lake” and Alec Guinness in the “The Lavender Hill Mob”, dined on Welsh rarebit at Townsend’s, had afternoon tea at the City of Paris and stayed at the Hotel Cartwright on Sutter. In San Francisco we saw “The Prince and the Showgirl” starring Francis Lederer and the very young Shirley McLaine in the role played on screen by Marilyn Monroe. Even after moving to Phoenix we spent a couple of Christmases in the City by the Bay. Its magic still grips me sixty years later. I'd like to spend the holidays there again.

After the abrupt end to my innocence reported last time and a brief period of couch surfing I rented an apartment at the Lone Palm apartment complex just off Broadway and Rural Road in Tempe. The place had as revolving cast of characters and was the site of much revelry as you can imagine. Life was school, by that time I actually started acting like a student albeit on the famed eight year program, work and play not necessarily in that order. I was in college so long that I ran for homecoming king as a first semester sophomore when you had to be a second semester junior to compete. I’d been in school for long that folks thought I was a graduate student. My campaign slogan in my run for king was the memorable “Remember a vote for Steve is a vote for Steve.” I was a distant fourth. Still not too shabby for a total goof. 

The pool at the Lone Palm 2014

Bob Karan, Chuck Fridenmaker and I at that very pool in the early sixties. People might say that they never saw me without a beer but that's just wrong. Bob was completing his doctorate and became a professor at San Diego State. Chuck was an extraordinary photographer who got his MFA and died while hiking before he was thirty.

The Lone Palm is where I lived when I met the former Peggy Engle on a blind date arranged by John Dick. Stifle the snickering. John was dating the redoubtable Pam Shelley who was arguably the hottest dish on campus. Pam’s body was so extraordinary that guys would walk all the way across campus for a closer look at her configuration. Even Peggy agrees that Pam was gifted. Ron Becker and I asked John to set us up. Ron was lined up with Kathy Bush and I drew Peggy. Forty eight years of wedded bliss has ensued. And they said it wouldn't last. 

And finally heartfelt thanks to all of you for the atta boys and kind words after that somber post last week. It meant a lot. Thank you.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


You’d think that if you had lived all four of your angst ridden high school years in the same house you’d remember the name of your street. I didn’t. But with a street map of Tempe and by following my substantial nose I found the little dwelling. I didn’t expect the Taj Mahal but, Jesus, the poor thing was a storage unit. 

What had been a white two bedroom was now a lime green outbuilding in a sprawling church complex across the street from a hospital that didn’t exist when I was a boy. Sad and diminished, the little box still stood fifty years later.   

The house
The house harbors lots of memories, some of them actually good: my first LP, Dave Brubeck’s “Take the A –train,” My Ludwig drum kit with Zyldjian cymbals, the ebony Wurlitzer spinet in the living room, the three block amble to and from my high school, once on a broken fifth metatarsal after a basketball scrimmage, the gorgeous Mary Lou McNatt, the lead in the all school play “Rebel Without a Cause” and second place in a state wide oratory contest that foretold a life of silver medals.

When I got back to the house from the police station my bags were on the back stoop. The night before I had crashed in the back seat of my car in front of my singing partner’s house. There may have been beer involved. Very early that morning my mother found me and called the cops. The officers, much embarrassed and apologetic, took me downtown presumably to book me for underage drinking or some other Class 1 felony. I was never charged. I sat in the slammer for a couple of hours, was released and walked home to be find my worldly possessions on the back stoop. I was on the street.

The stoop

A year and a half later when I turned 21 I went back to the house for the first time since that momentous day. I went back, ostensibly, to get my birth certificate though I suppose I was hoping for something more. There would be no something more and I never saw my mother again. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The lambing season

Alfonzo Abeyta
The whole sheep wrangling odyssey began almost a century ago when Alfonzo Abeyta’s father Amos helped with his uncle’s sheep and was paid in orphan or “penco” lambs for his efforts. Those pencos became the foundation of the Abeyta flock which this year numbers around 325.

Alfonzo took the baton from his dad and now the tradition is being preserved by son Andrew and grandson Amos. Both Alfonzo and Andrew remember that their first job was stomping on the wool to compress it as much as possible before bagging it. They were both about six when they started.

Andrew and Amos Abeyta
Throughout March and part of April a whole new generation of Abeyta sheep will enter this bleating world. Last Friday the precious little critters were squirting out wherever I turned, some of them, maybe two dozen, were pencos like the original sheep. Around fifteen ewes died in the untimely chill that descended on the San Luis Valley right after the shearing. "The cold weather was pretty hard on the sheep" lamented Andrew. I asked him if he lost more than normal this year and he responded that he had.

One lamb coming up

Managing the lambing circus is like herding cats 16 hours a day. Andrew and Amos Abeyta were showing the wear and tear of the ordeal already and still have a month to go. The crux of the effort is keeping mom and the babies together. Ewes have a notoriously short attention span and will forget the first lamb while birthing lambs two or three. My ewe of choice bore triplets so mother and children were herded into the same pen as quickly as possible. The ewe had no particular interest in feeding the youngsters and was given a hefty push by Amos.

Family unit

Ewes know their lambs by smell and will reject penco lambs. The pencos have to be hand fed goat’s milk from a repurposed water bottle. The scrum to get some of that magic elixir is a battle royal. Gloves highly recommended. When I asked Andrew how he knew that each lamb had been fed he said he could tell by their full tummies. How sweet is that?

Bottle Babies
Work release

Amos corralling strays

Andrew and a straggler

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Shapes and Shadows

We’re on the road going from opening to opening to opening. First it's Sorrel Sky in Durango then Sorrel Sky in Santa Fe and on to the Panhandle Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas. That’s three Peggy Immel shindigs in as many nights. So in anticipation of the white line fever that awaits I’m writing this several days in advance. And what with scrambling to get ready I’m adopting the short but sweet model. These are from Joshua Tree three weeks ago because that’s what the otherworldly shapes and shadows demanded on that day. The two below are quite abstract so if the scale is a mystery I have succeeded.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

It's February 22 all over again

Due to a computer glitch that forced me to restore my computer back to an earlier date the post named "Both Sides Now" was lost. So to preserve at least an archive of the entry here's an approximation of the February 22 issue.

Since 2012 when I last visited the Salton Sea I have wanted to return to photograph more desert weirdness and decrepitude. The images I made there that December proved to be my favorites of the entire year and that compelled me to return.

The so-called “sea” emerged from human error wherein the great canal cut from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley breached so that the entire contents of the Colorado flowed into the Salton Sink for two years. That created an inland sea and the largest lake in California. The Salton Sea enjoyed a brief honeymoon in the fifties and has since evaporated into an odiferous repository of agricultural runoff. The sea has no outlet so it brews itself into a toxic tea. So far I missed the highly touted Dead Fish Festival that occurs in mid-July when temperatures reach 120 degrees. 

Seen at the right time of day the view across the placid waters can by quite alluring though the chain link fence that prevents you from entering its recuperative waters suggests otherwise.

And despite its darker properties there are still folks who call the Salton Sea home as is evidenced by RV parks with wall to wall trailers from 1951 and all manner of detritus and graffiti.

On the plus side the Salton Sea boasts more bird varieties than anyplace in the US not named Big Bend.

And the remains of one unfortunate Pelican.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The once and future

I got into the sheep ranching story somewhere in the middle of the book. Both of my encounters with El Cubano Victor Hernandez happened at the end of the grazing chapter and now after trailing the sheep for a dozen or so miles and being part of the shearing festivities last weekend I'm hooked in a big way.

The story began to tell itself during the two day trek to the Abeyta ranch in Mogote, Colorado a couple of weeks ago. The shearing of the sheep, an event that is deeply communal, has given cultural context to the tale. If I treasured meeting Victor and trailing the sheep to Mogote, being part of the shearing has only deepened my appreciation for the rich history and uncertain future of sheep ranching and the proud culture of family, faith and the land in the San Luis Valley.

In the corral

In the chute

Aaron Abeyta gives a push

Inside the shearing trailer


Tom Barr's shearing rig

Branson Barr feeding the EZ Baler

400 pound bales of wool

Not so long ago the Abeyta family’s neighbors in Mogote would pitch in to gather the sheep and to prod them through a long chute where each would be shorn with hand shears. It was hard, time consuming work that produced forearms like Popeye’s.

Today a handful of friends and neighbors, all volunteers, arrive at the ranch to help Los Abeytas with the shearing but as much, it seems to me, to be part of an age old ritual and to be part of the clan. The clan is united by a shared history of lean times and the hard work of wresting a living from the earth. It is united in a separateness born of its history, ethnicity, income and loss.

If in the old times the shearing was done by the family and the clan, today the shearing itself is done by Tom Barr’s hired hands who shear a sheep with an electric razor in three minutes or less. Tom and his four assistants hail from the Mormon farming community of Sanford which lies about thirty miles from Mogote just past La Jara. I asked him how long he had owned his roving rig and he told me, “My dad built the thing in 1965 so it’s fifty years old. I remodeled it ten years ago. Put new siding on it. That guy (pointing at the number three shearer) did the work.” To my knowledge Bob has the only family owned shearing operation in southern Colorado and he and his vagabond crew drive as far as Montrose to shear sheep. What happens if Bob folds his tent is a question that looms as large as what happens when the 76 year old Cubano can’t herd the sheep anymore. The forecast is partly cloudy in this part of the San Luis Valley where the future of the Abeyta sheep operation mirrors the uncertainty of the Hispano ranching culture in southern Colorado.

One dead ewe and another just hanging on
Running sheep is not for the meek. There are nicks and cuts from the shearing and not every animal survives the march from the Taos Plateau. "We lose a few each year. Just like human beings, some are not strong enough to make it." Andrew Abeyta tells me. It's a poignant truth in a life rooted as strongly as faith to the land.