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Hippy Decadence

March 17, 2013

When I was living on the Santa Cruz side of the mountain, back in the early 1970s, we had a unique friend who lived in Swanton, just a few miles north of Davenport. Swanton is more of an area than a town, it was a logging community just a few miles inland from the coast on an old, abandon steam train route.

Our friend had a large house in an easy, shallow canyon that had belonged to one of the old time logging bosses in Swanton. It’s ground floor was dug into to the hillside so that when you came in the long driveway, you were looking at the handsome facade of a two story house, but when you exited the back door on the second story, you only saw the back side of the top floor. There was a twelve foot wide terrace that wrapped three sides of this big building on the second level. When it wasn’t raining, nearly all the living was done on this grand veranda. There was a great variety of outdoor furniture spread throughout the terrace and it was just way to easy to find yourself in a chaise lounge and napping off a good part of a lazy afternoon whenever you visited the place.

My Santa Cruz painter friend, Jeri Predika, was friends with the guy who owned this really nice Swanton homestead and often times, when I needed to see Jeri, he’d tell me to meet him up at Sam’s place, the big house in Swanton. As it turns out, Sam was had been a long time announcer/DJ at one of the oldest and biggest radio stations in San Francisco. After 30 years of being a big success up there, Sam retired and made a great living as “voice talent,” selling his big, smooth, familiar voice to all sorts of big time advertisers all over the west coast. He made more money in retirement than he ever did working for the station. Sam was a haughty, private sort of man and I never got to know him very well. Jeri might go to Swanton and spend three or four days staying at Sam’s, sleeping in one of the many extra rooms. Sam was generous with his lodgings and there always seemed to be three or four extra “non-residents” hanging out, usually refugees from the City (San Francisco, often L.A.).

I was in my early 20s when we were spending time at Sam’s in Swanton, and for a long time Sam would barely acknowledge my presence when I was at his house. I was like just a shadow of Jeri but after a year or so, he started talking to me as a viable and intelligent person. As I slowly learned, Sam’s long time in the City, involved with radio, music and night clubs, he was very into the alternative culture scene up there, the beat world; Lawrence Ferlighetti, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac were all friends of his though he seldom spoke of them. Sometimes one of them might show up at Sam’s, but they never socialized. Sam would sequester such visitors to a private and far section of the enormous terrace and have subdued, low toned pow-wows with them.

For whatever of Sam’s peculiarities, there is one thing I loved about visiting his place, he and I and Jeri would sit on the longest of the terrace sections facing the rear of the property where, below us stretched out a large, poorly groomed vegetable garden with some large, fallen redwoods at it’s back side. Jeri and I would bring bags of empty bottles and cans to Sam’s and we’d place them on the top of the fallen redwood trunks. We’d pull up three of the chaise lounges near to the railing, along with some low end tables and we’d pour ourselves snifters to the correct fill of Grande Manier orange liquor. We pull out our .22 rifles and each of us would set a box of .22 shells next to our snifters. We could easily spend an entire afternoon, emptying those bullet boxes and break open a new one just before sunset. We might exchange as much as $25 on an afternoon, betting on special shots that we’d set up on the backs of the fallen redwood trees. And, truly, how often do you get to practice shooting from an inverted prone position, laying on your backside, with your back at an appreciable incline. Those chaise lounges got a good workout on those afternoons.

These were the good, old simple days, where one could have a pleasurable and enchanting day with out all the accouterments of a gym or a golf course. All you needed was your rifle and a brandy snifter. I remember one trip over to Sam’s, I was driving my Volkswagen over Highway 17 and as I swung into Laurel Curve at the turnout, the car started slowing down to a crawl and as I gave the gas pedal a goose, the engine just remained at an idle. And as I rolled off the road onto the turnout, I realized that the throttle cable had broken. The motor ran fine, the transmission was perfect but I couldn’t rev it up.

I opened the trunk and shuffled around the tool box and the spare tire and found some old, fine fishing line. I took out my pocket knife and cut a length of the line and tied one end to the throttle on the carburetor. I laced the line through a vent hole above the engine and I just wrapped the other end round my hand. I proceeded to Swanton pulling on the fish line to control the speed of my motor. Jeri smiled big when he became aware of my simple solution and resourcefulness.

“That’s the way we do it,” he said to me as I got out of the car at the end of Sam’s driveway. For one summer, nearly all of our Wednesdays afternoons were spent drinking Grande Mariner and wasting a box of .22 bullets, and as the summer grew older, we shot less and drank more.

With the approach of a new summer, I had moved back into Los Gatos but I had one more construction job on the Santa Cruz side so I decided to check with Jeri to see if we were to take up our Wednesday afternoons again up at Sam’s. Jeri’s place in Santa Cruz was a small farm house at the end of a short road straddled by newly built small industrial shops run by mechanics and machinists. The farm house at the end of the lane stood out as an incongruous element of this little street but it’s huge yard and it’s towering trees made it a welcome respite to all who found the place at the end of the brand new sidewalks. But, this one day, as I came up to the house, things were just not right. In the front yard of the farm house, and in the side yards, were a fair number of people but their arrangement was all wrong. It was as though each of the friends were not people but chess pieces on an invisible chess board, rigid and passionless, no one person relating to any of the others, so alone and stoic each of them were. No one moved, even as I parked the car and said a pleasant “Hi” to everyone, there was no response, as though they were all frozen. I ignored the rebuff and went through the open front door.

I was carrying a six pack of Jeri’s favorite beer and I set it down firmly on the kitchen table where Jeri and his east coast, professor friend, Ted, were sitting. Jacky, Jeri’s girl friend was in shorts and barefoot, with her back to me, at the small stove, frying up some eggs. I looked round to the three of them, not a smile, not even a glance from anyone, just stillness except for the popping oil in the pan.

“God, what’s with everyone?” I asked, totally confused.

Jacky turned to me, seething and breathing harshly through her teeth, she screamed at me

“Ed, how could you ask that? HOW COULD YOU?” She threw the spatula across the room so hard you would think it would stick in the wall as if it were an ax.

My eyes popped open and I gasped in a breath as all three stared at me as though I was a criminal.

“WHAT?” I insisted. Something was very wrong.

“Nancy was killed” Jacky screamed at me. Nancy was Jacky’s sister and Swanton Sam’s wife.

“No, no, no, . . . she wasn’t killed, No, Ed! She was murdered!” Jacky screamed as she slammed the sizzling frying pan onto the table, breaking some of the beer bottles, we all ducking out of the way. Jeri jumped up and hugged her as her head sunk between her shoulders, sobbing.

Murder? was in my head and all the stuffing had been kicked out of me in one breath. Murder?

I had always thought of Nancy as an extra special person, for her openness and generosity. Murder?

Ted scooped me up and took me into the living room. He whispered to me that Sam had shot Nancy then killed himself at the foot of the stairs of the big house with the terrace. The police found four bullets standing on end on the banister, thinking they were meant for the couple’s four kids, but scratches on the floor suggested that Nancy put up such a fight, Sam only did the two of them.

I became a chess piece in the front yard.

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