… never break the chain

In 4th grade or so in the mid-1960s, I found myself in the YMCA Gra-Y youth program, having graduated from the Indian Guides, which of course has, fortunately, lost the “Indian” since. My Gra-Y group at the Santa Barbara Y was the Pythons. Our shirts had a white or gray coiled snake on forest green fabric. Yes, forrest green. That was, for some reason, discussed and emphasized to the point that I still remember. 

Our main activity, or the one that sticks with me, was flag football, played on Saturdays on the field behind the Y, in a league with the other Gra-Y groups also based there. I don’t remember any of their names. Or colors. Somehow I was our team’s lone All-Star selection at the end of the season. I was small, wiry and quick enough that on defense I could dart through the offensive line and grab the streamer Velcroed to the belt of the opponent with the ball and slam it to the ground — a tackle in that low-contact version of the sport — for a loss of yards. Now and then I used the same skills on offense to take a handoff and weave through the opponent’s defense for a gain, and even a touchdown here and there. This, sadly, stands as the sole sports success of my life. Well, at least I have one.

I also have a clear memory of a Gra-Y motto, unless it was from Indian Guides, in which case it’s a not-quite-as-clear memory. The motto, emblazoned on patches we could buy and affix to our clothes, was:

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Today I find that it is derived from a passage about chains of intellectual reasoning in a 1786 essay by English writer Thomas Reid. I also see, from Wiktionary, that it may have been a reworking of a Basque aphorism: 

A thread usually breaks where it is thinnest.

Regardless, the truism made a big impression on me. Thinking about it through my life I found many places in which to apply it. But I also came to realize that maybe I mis-applied it. Or, more accurately, misinterpreted it.

In Gra-Y (or Whatever-Y) it was used to instruct us on how individuals form a chain of a group, or a community, or by extension, a society. It made sense. I see now that it really was an admonishment to not be a weak link, to take responsibility for your part in things, to not let everyone else down. Sure. That seems important.

It was something else for me, though, maybe the opposite. There was something just too John Wayne about the shaming of someone who has weakness. And there was something really coming to my, and many others’ consciousness: that weakness is not always the “weak” one’s fault. Weakness — and I’m going to stop using that term as it is meant to shame — can come from a variety of directions, be they cultural, economic, socio-political, physical, or whatever. Some people don’t have advantages others have. Some people are struggling. Some people are hurting. It’s as simple as that. 

And if some are struggling, some are hurting, then we all who make up that chain are too. And it follows, with nary a thought to it, that when this is the case, it is all of our responsibility to step in and help. It raises up the individual and the chain, all at once. 

This became and remains my political philosophy, such as I have one. And now I think that perhaps it is others who have misinterpreted that saying.

With you standing here…

Paris – July 12, 2019

A little bell rings and our guide, Lybert, says, “Let’s go!” The carousel begins to turn, counterclockwise, the horses that are free to do so start to rise and fall. 

There’s music, evoking a fair. And Piaf’s voice: “Mon Manège à Moi” — “My carousel is you.” 

We don’t know the words or their meaning, or how perfect they are. But we know it’s Piaf, of course. We would have known even if Lybert had not told us already.

Tu mais fais tournez la tête, sings the Little Sparrow. You make my head spin.

Lybert sings along for one spin, then lets Piaf take over. 

We spin and laugh. We try to hold hands but it’s hard as we alternate the ups and downs. Upsan Downs. Sounds like a horse track.

There is, in fact, a horse race here, a mechanical game about 20 feet wide, at which a dozen or so players roll balls into holes that move their respective steeds forward a step or two or three until one crosses the finish line. There’s another here as well, but with French waiters carrying trays instead of horses. We play them both, with much excitement.

This is Le Musée des Arts Forains, its Belle Époque and Venetian delights housed in the old brick complex of warehouses that was originally a wine distribution center, Les Pavilions des Bercy, just up from the Seine’s Rive Droit. If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” you’ve seen it. The party scene with Gil/Owen Wilson doing the Charleston? That’s the carousel. And then he and Adriana/Marion Cotillard go see another carousel, one with bicycles pedaled into a centrifugal frenzy? 

The group with which we are touring the museum would be on that one soon, the young son of a couple from China crying and struggling to free himself from his mother’s grip as we turn, clockwise now — those on “bikes” pedalling furiously while those of us on “carts” hang on for dear life and desperately seeking fixed points on which to focus. That’s what spinning skaters do, right? When it stops we’re equally dizzied and relieved that somehow, miraculously, the kid didn’t fly off.

It’s not just carousels. There’s much more here:

A “re-creation” of a Venetian ball with animatronic figures perched in balconies around the room. 

Magnificent and massive music boxes.

Feathery costumes on elegant figures.

But now we’re riding the horses around and around.  

My head is swimming. A lot swirling inside it.

I pat my right front pants pocket to make sure the two little slips of paper have not fallen out. I’d moved them over from my more crowded left pocket a few minutes ago. I’d moved them to that pocket from my passport in a pouch around my neck, where I’d squirreled them earlier in the day. I want them safe, but handy.

“Make some noise!” Lybert says, as the carousel slows. 

He says that a lot, whether singling out one of us on the tour who has answered a question he’s posed correctly, or looking for enthusiasm from us regarding one of the attractions. He seemed a bit much at first, but by now we’ve come to like him a lot. He has dramatic flair. Susan asks him if he’s performed opera, he says yes, that’s what he does! But there’s no way he hasn’t played the MC in a production or two of “Cabaret.” Absolutely no way. 

He takes us to the next room. 

My head spins.

Another calliope, fed with a perforated paper roll a la a player piano, causing horns to blow, tines to tinkle, drums to beat. 

A slow-turning carousel from Venice, simulating a ride on the canals — we sit in a swan. We laugh. We kiss.

I’m in a blur.

We come to the end of the tour, Lybert wraps it up as he began it, in full cheerlead mode. Our ad hoc group disperses toward the gate: The mother and her two young daughters from Santa Monica, right around the corner from us! The couple from England. The young woman from Philadelphia. The Chinese family, having averted disaster.

“Sit with me for a minute,” I say to Susan. 

I’d noted the display of three carousel horses mounted in a wooden platform along the entryway when we were first let in. It would do.

She looks puzzled, but sits.

Lybert, though stands holding the gate, 20 feet away.

“Is it alright if we just sit here a little?” I ask,

“No,” he says. “Sorry. I have to lock up and we have no security.”

I can’t explain to him my reason for wanting to linger, and reluctantly motion to Susan that we have to leave, uncertain of what to do now.

We walk out to the street, a semi-industrial neighborhood, not a lot of traffic. The sun is brighter for us having been inside. I look around and notice just as we turn right that the outer wall of the building has a set of false arches recessed into the brick. At the first one I motion to the ledge at the bottom of the arch and say, again, “Sit with me for a minute.”

It’s a little dirty. Three Corona bottles are strewn at its base in various states of repose.

She sits, uncertain, on the right side of the ledge. I sit next to her, and turn to her, taking the slips of paper from my pocket.

“I want to read you something,” I say.

“Okay,” she replies, drawing the word out with quizzical doubt.

I look at the top one of the two slips, on which I’d scribbled the words, copied that morning from notes on my computer. I’d planned this days ago, back in Santa Monica, and meant to print it out, but forgot. So at our apartment in the 6th a few hours before, unable to find “real” paper, I wrote them out on these receipts, deliberately defying my historically poor penmanship to make them legible.

“First in French,” I say, launching into the best pronunciation I can dredge up from my grade-school classes of words rendered en Français by Google Translate. Maybe not as poetic as it could be, but it sufficed.

Aujourd’hui, tout ce que tu veux

Je jure que tout se réalisera

Aujourd’hui, je réalise combien

Je suis amoureux de vous

Avec vous debout ici

Je pourrais dire au monde

Qu’est-ce que cela signifie d’aimer

Pour continuer d’ici

Je ne peux pas utiliser de mots

Ils ne disent pas assez

I shuffle the slips and bring the other to the top.

“Now in English…”

Today, everything you want

I swear it will all come true

Today, I realize how much

I’m in love with you

With you standing here

I could tell the world

What it means to love

To go on from here

I can’t use words

They don’t say enough

Without pausing at the last word, I add:

Susan Elizabeth Hayden, will you marry me?

Her eyes widen. First shock, then a smile.

“Yes!” she says, brightly. And then, 


Then,  quickly, “WAIT! Did you just ask me to marry you?”

“I did. You know what that was, right?”

She looks at me blankly. 

“‘Today.’ Jefferson Airplane.”

It’s one of “our” songs, a key one in our early courtship, if you can call it that, a crucial discovery of something we shared.

“Really?” she says, startled. “You read it like it was Walt Whitman or something! Read it again!”

I read it again. As I did the first time. Deliberately, word by word, trying to hold my composure.

Her eyes water luminously as I get to the end of the English part, those last lines. But before I can re-pose the question, she says, firmly:

“Get on your knee!”

I do as she requests.

Susan Elizabeth Hayden, will you marry me?

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” she says.

A burst of laughter radiates from her, with beams of light, so it seems. And her shoulders give a shuddering bounce, as they sometimes do following a sweet kiss. 

I rise from my knee and give her a sweet kiss.  

She laughs and shudders again. We laugh together.

And kiss again.

Tu mais fais tournez la tête.



“Let’s go to the Marais and get falafel!”

She wants falafel, she gets falafel. I want it too. As one does at such a time.

Taxi drops us off at the start of the cobbled street along which contempo boutiques crowd in against Judaica in various forms, many winding down the day as the sunset bringing the Sabbath is coming in a few hours.

Among the many falafel dealers, we choose L’as du Falafel, with its hard-to-miss green-and-yellow front and celeb endorsements (“Recommended by Lenny Kravitz!”). There’s a line 10 deep at the takeaway window and a steady stream of people going in and out from the inside seated area. We feel badly for the other place with basically the same menu right across the walk, which has nearly no business at all, but we go in anyway. 


Good choice. Djokovic beating Bautista at Wimbledon is on the TV on the wall. A delicious falafel-in-pita each later, 20 minutes or so, we head back out to stroll. 

After just a few steps, we’re approached by a rather chipper young Hassid in full black-suit-black-hat-white-shirt dress, though only a relatively light, short beard. 

“Are you Jewish?” he asks.

Slight hesitation before I answer, “Yes.”



“I’m from Australia.” There is a trace of an accent.

He holds his hand out. 

“Do you know the Tefillin?”

“Yes,” I say, warily eyeing the black cube and leather straps he proffers.

“Would you like to put on these bad boys?”

Only slightly thrown by “bad boys,” I shake my head no, stopping just short of saying, “Clearly you have mistaken me for some other Jew.”

We keep walking. So does he alongside us, pleasant but persistent.

“May I give you some candles for the Sabbath?”

I’m waiting for the ask for cash, which he anticipates.

“They’re free,” he says, sincerely seeming not to expect or even want a donation for his chabad. 

And with that he hands me two candles, those little tea lights in the short tin casings, just a half an inch deep. The kind that are commonly arrayed on votive stands in Catholic churches. Or inside jackolanterns.

“The man prays,” he says, expansively. “And the woman lights the candles and spreads the light.”

I turn to her, the light-spreader. And smile.

He holds out his hand, offering nothing but a congenial shake and smile, which I take and return.

“Shabbat shalom!” we wish each other.


…. to high Heaven

July 4, 1979

The dusty, rusted pickup pulled up alongside the beanfield. One rather round guy got out on the passenger side. Another, by appearances the other’s brother, from behind the wheel. They nodded and half-smiled at Joanie and Rob, who were busying themselves in front of their small trailer/home with preparations for the Independence Day gathering they were hosting. Bags of chips were being emptied into plastic bowls. Jars of salsa opened without the formality of decanting. Beers and sodas iced in a tub. 

Doug, the anthro professor with whom several of us were spending the summer up here in Northern New Mexico on an archaeological dig, studied the charcoal he’d been arranging in a dented barbecue kettle. It had to be just right so that, as would the spray of lighter fluid coming soon, so that a single match touched in the one perfect spot would bring about the even distribution of heat in consideration of the hot dogs, burgers and, marinating in ziplocs, some chicken which awaited.

The apparent brothers, along with many others in this area, were perhaps descended from the people who in the early 1500s, before Europeans had made it up this way, had abandoned the long-buried and largely undisturbed-to-now site at which we were digging on the mesa right above two-lane Highway 285. Not sure if these two had rolled up from the San Juan Pueblo down river, or maybe from one of the sparse communities spread out among the hills. They circled to the truck’s bed, and each reached in retrieved a beat-up guitar case. There were a dozen or so folding chairs around. They took two, set them a few feet apart, halfway between their truck and the trailer, took their guitars from the cases, sat down and started to strum.

C… G… F… C… G… F… C… G… F…

They ran through that a few times and then started to sing, in unison:

Crossin’ the highway late last night

He shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right

He didn’t see the station wagon car

The skunk got smashed and there you are.

Dead skunk in the middle of the road

Dead skunk in the middle of the road

Dead skunk in the middle of the road

Stinkin’ to high heaven.

And then, doing their best to get Loudon Wainwright III’s wry delivery of the original, they waited the appropriate few beats before somberly intoning in tandem the tag: 


Then they cracked up.

No one seemed to be paying attention aside from me. I had my guitar too, the nylon-string starter model I’d bought nearly 10 years before with Bar Mitzvah money. Maybe we’d have a hootenanny.

I went to get it, found a third free chair and sat down with them. They smiled and resumed strumming.

C… G… F… C… G… F… C… G… F…

They sang it over again.


And they cracked up again.

I plucked a clumsy solo for an instrumental chorus, then they resumed singing, though I don’t think they knew any of the other verses so they just repeated the first one a few times before cracking up again at the end.

I tentatively played some chords to something else, “Cowgirl in the Sand,” or perhaps I tried to show off a little with the intro lick to “Sugar Magnolia.”

They paid no mind, looked at each other and started once more. 

Dead Skunk…” 

And that’s pretty much how it went, except that after a couple of starts and stops of the song there were no more stops. For 45 minutes. I am not exaggerating. Three-quarters of an hour. It was the “Dark Star” of “Dead Skunks,” and some acid might have helped. People would wander over, hear the song, maybe even join in on a chorus, and then wander away. Some came back, rolled their eyes, and left again. No one acted as if there was anything abnormal here. 


Every couple of minutes – they’d sing “stinkin’ to high heaven,” put on the most sober faces they could manage, look each other in the eye and command:


It was hypnotizing. The song’s only got those three chords, played over and over. It’s trance music worthy of the Gnawa brotherhoods of Morocco, if they were singing about Pepe LePew roadkill. I was powerless to do anything but stay and play.



As the afternoon wore on, people trickled in to the party, having crossed the river in their cars as we had in Doug’s vintage VW camper van. The fixings for the barbecue mounted with each arrival, along with the armory of fireworks, mostly legal, purchased down in Española. The Big Indian (that’s what he called himself, and he was, a 6’5″ Apache from the midwest) and his family brought some jambalaya and cornbread (his wife was Cajun). Joanie was setting up some tables while Rob and their four-year-old son cleared the ground of what was to be the staging spot for the display, testing out a few bottle rockets, launched from a folding chair and pointed over the field, away from the small trailer, all set on a small patch of dry ground between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Rio Grande – the tributary here just a middling flow working its way down the Rockies to its ultimate role as the famed border and then the Gulf.

It was certainly a different vibe this year. Last summer we were somewhat outsiders, fighting suspicion that comes naturally in these small, isolated communities. That year it was Jim and Jeff (both still undergrads) and just-graduated me joining Doug for the inaugural dig. For about half of the six weeks Doug’s two young daughters, just four and six years old, joined us. The adults slept in tents at the ex-KOA (it had lost its affiliation a few years back), the girls in Doug’s old and mechanically uncertain green VW camper van. 

The Big Indian managed the campground that first summer with his wife and two teen daughters. But before the ’79 return session they’d lost that gig entirely due to some sort of feud with the owner. So this summer, we were staying across the road in a little motor court, which was something of luxury accommodations comparatively. 

The motor court and the campground were the only choices in Ojo Caliente in those days, the town consisting pretty much of nothing else but a post office (barely), a few scattered houses and the near-derelict “spa” built at the hot springs that gave the village its name. This is the kind of place where the young adult culture seemed to revolve around the guy who’d gotten his hand caught in a wood chipper and pulled down a resultant insurance settlement – which he used mostly to by pot and malt liquor and, of course, gas for his Firebird. That’s about as good as kids who stayed here could aspire to in those days, I guess. 

The small general store just down the road was officially outside of town, as was the Mexican restaurant (and its perilous sanitary practices that got each of us at one time or another) about the same short distance north. Española, a booming metropolis relatively speaking (it had a Dairy Queen!) lies 25 miles south, cosmopolitan Santa Fe another 25 further south and Albuquerque (practically New York-like with its university and airport) another 50 miles. This is the southern Rocky Mountains, the northern Rio Grande valley, Georgia O’Keefe country and locale of John Nichols’ “The Milagro Beanfield War.” Our Independence Day celebration site wasn’t the same beanfield, but if you’ve read the book, you’d recognize the setting, not to mention the people. And maybe the magic realism infusing Nichols’ tales, which locals would simply call “realism.” 

This summer, Doug’s students were all women, and with a limited budget the three of them – Julia, who had been my Platonic apartment mate in L.A. for a bit, gregarious Kristin and meek Liz – were kind enough to accept me as co-tenant in our cozy room. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor and it all worked out surprisingly well in terms of privacy and personal space, except for that one time when Kristin passed out in the middle of the night in the bathroom (that Mexican restaurant again) and I was the only one to hear her fall, finding her unconscious on the floor before I could rouse the others to attend to her. She was fine, though embarrassed.

With Doug joined for part of the time this year not only by his daughters but his wife Carol, he and I were the only males in the gang, and the tone was a bit different than the boys club of ‘78. Rather than shooting at, and missing, prairie dogs when we visited the Big Indian and his family, now those social occasions involved excessive amounts of stew and cornbread and sitting around the kitchen table listening to their cassette of Cajun comic Justin Wilson, I garrrr-an-tee you – this was before he was a national phenom for his PBS cooking show or before anyone outside of southwest Louisiana even really knew what a Cajun was. His shaggy catfish story — the ultimate tall tale of the one that not only got away but toyed with him like a, well, cat with a mouse — put the Big Indian and family in stitches even though they’re heard it hundreds of times. 

For me it was a time of transition. I had just learned that I’d been accepted into the Anthropology Film Center, a small, intensive hands-on documentary film production and theory program in Santa Fe. So in a couple of weeks I’d be driving my little blue Opel wagon back to L.A., clearing out my apartment, packing as much as I could into the car and heading back to New Mexico to find a place to live and starting a new life, more or less.

That was all out of my mind as we settled in that afternoon. We sat and gabbed – Rob, small but tough, talked about the several seasons in the last few years they’d worked as migrant fruit pickers, heading up into Colorado. They were just Okies, he explained. Maybe they’d have to move back home. Things hadn’t been going too well. But they’d be okay. 

“You know that song, ‘Little Bit o’ Soul’?” Rob asked me. 

“The Music Explosion,” I answered. I’d coincidentally just heard that ‘60s hit on the radio a couple of days before, but I knew it anyway. 

“Guess who the drummer was.” 

“I have no idea.” 

“You’re lookin’ at her.” He turned toward Joanie.


 “Yeah,” she said. “I was living in San Francisco then, and dating the drummer. I was supposed to meet him at the studio, but he didn’t show up. He’d taught me the drum part to that song, so they asked me to do it.”

“That’s not an easy part,” I said. “And it really is what makes the song.”

She Mona-Lisa-smiled. Is the story true? Who knows? She was even smaller than Rob, couldn’t have been more than 5’1” and 95 pounds. Hard to imagine her beating the skins with the force heard on that garage-rocker. Da-da-da-da … THUMP! Da-da-da-da … THUMP! But it’s a great story and I have no reason not to believe it, no matter what the credits on the record say.


Sundown came around 8:15, though the official fireworks portion started while it was still just twilight, which was fireworks enough on its own up here at 7,000 feet in the high desert – shifting streams of blue, purple and orange dancing over the hills. Once it was dark, it became a full-on barrage: Roman candles, pinwheels, flares, bottle rockets and more bottle rockets, some very loud and concussive explosives that I’m pretty sure were not all that legal. But it remained safe and, relatively, sane. Bit-by-bit people started to peel away, headed home or to other parties, all smiles and satisfaction. Some I’d never see again.

A few of them I did see during the nine months I lived in Santa Fe before returning to California. A couple of times I went up to visit, hang out. Doug I saw a few times back in L.A., but after a year or so he got another job at another college in another city. Julia moved to Mexico, got married, had a kid, turned up a couple of times in visits with various other friends around here. The Big Indian is certainly no longer with us – he was close to 60 then and having health problems. Somehow I figure the guy with the wood-chippered arm probably is still around, maybe he got another settlement for some other accident, bought another muscle car, wrecked it a couple of times but got away with just some bruises and is still the guy around an increasingly young crowd of waste-os gathers to smoke weed and chug malt liquor and suffer his bitter rants. 

The hot springs, though, has been upgraded to a modern spa, a “resort” at least relatively speaking. A new age resort. With a wine bar and paleo/keto/whatever entrees on its restaurant menu.

And the two brothers? Pretty much anything could have happened to them. Maybe they became respected tribal elders, negotiating mineral rights with the BIA. Maybe they remained just guys, living with their kids and grandkids at the pueblo. Maybe they moved to cities seeking work.

Or they’re still strumming: C… G… F… C… G… F… C… G… F…




About 10 years ago, Mary started getting up early, 5 a.m. or so. It was no surprise that her sleep patterns were off. Nearly a decade of breast cancer treatment, what with chemo, various other drugs and unfathomable emotional/psychological stresses, can do that. Just being the partner of someone undergoing that had played havoc with my sleep patterns — I’d gone through occasional stretches of insomnia, sometimes weeks on end. So her atypical early-to-rise state was not a shock.

Then one morning a week or two later, as I was waking a couple of hours after she’d gotten up, she returned to the bedroom, plunked down a stack of paper on the bed and said, “So, I’ve written a novel.”

I believe that my reaction was a suitably erudite, “Wha?? Gaa?? Faa??”

Well, that’s what she was doing with her pre-dawn hours. She wrote a novel. Just like that. In a week or two. I was impressed and agog. And a teeny bit peeved — I’d started a novel a couple of years before that and had made only a little headway. (And here, a decade later, it is still a work-in-progress at best.) She simply knocked one out. Just like that. Easy-peasy.

“Figures of Echo,” it said on the title page. I started to read it. And it was…. good! Really good! A young adult/pre-teen tale, but one of sophistication and imagination, full of playful spirit and true emotions. In other words: It was Mary. The main character, an 11-year-old girl, was very Mary — a voracious intellect, insatiable curiosity, quick wit and easy-flowing humor and affection, tempered by, but not hindered by, accompanying self-doubts and insecurities.

Echo lives with her dad over a Manhattan tavern (and quasi-restaurant) he runs. Her mom died a few years before, but a set of regular patrons make up their extended family, and overall things are pretty fine. Until….. well. No spoilers. It’s a sweet, fun, breezy read. The characters are fully formed. The situations and drama well-plotted and plausible. And, most importantly, it has Mary’s voice in every phrase.

After a few attempts to shop it around to publishers, she wound up putting it out herself via Lulu, with copyediting by niece Bianca and a fine cover design by friend Brigid. It won the DIY Book Festival’s nod as Best Teenage Novel of 2007.

Not long after it was bought by Lifetime for a TV movie. They gave it to a screenwriter, who changed key elements of the plot, changed key things about the main characters, made up a perky/silly best friend for Echo and changed the title (“Custody,” ugh). And it was…. not good. Rob Morrow, James Denton and, as Echo, Kay Panabaker — all gave it their best in the lead roles. But, well, it was a Lifetime movie, so it was what you’d expect: dumbed-down and trite. But it aired, and for at least a few years was a regular part of the channel’s Father’s Day programming. And we had a nice viewing party with friends when it premiered in September 2007, Mary and Rick rushing home from the completion of their Plucky Survivors trip, a brand-spanking-new DVR allowing us to watch from the start though they arrived about half an hour late.

Mary wrote a lot. Her Los Angeles Times series about her cancer experiences touched and helped many others going through similar things. Her Frommer’s Guides brought insights and depth to New Orleans and, yeah, even Las Vegas. Her graduate work in theology and philosophy of religion were remarkably perceptive and illuminating — even if she was unable to complete her PhD work before she died, seven years ago today. Much of it is preserved on her web site, CancerChick.com.

But “Figures of Echo” may have been the writing of which she was most proud, rightfully. It’s a still-resounding echo of the remarkable person she was.

(This is not a sales pitch, but “Figures of Echo” is great reading for girls around the age of the title character. And for adults too. And any proceeds from it will be donated to PinkAid and Pink Fund, two wonderful organizations giving financial aid to women-in-need dealing with breast cancer. “Echo” can be purchased via Lulu.com or Amazon.)


Christmas Comes But Twice a Year



Ten years ago today, as we were wrapping up a visit to Serbia and Montenegro, we stepped onto a bus in Belgrade to go to a town we’d never heard of at the invitation of a family we had only met in passing to share in their celebration of Serbian Orthodox Christmas. It proved one of the great adventures of my life and an experience of such love and generosity on the part of these then-strangers, who now remain dear friends. Mary wrote a vivid account of that wild time shortly after, which I share again here to mark the anniversary of that, with much love to the wonderful Zovko family.

By Mary Herczog

January, 2007

To set the scene, Serbia celebrates Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Since much would be closed that day, we half-joked that perhaps we would meet some local who would invite us over to participate in their family holiday. Failing in that (that scheme worked out not at all for Estonia’s St. John’s Eve), we figured we would celebrate a traditional Jewish Orthodox Christmas, to wit, Chinese food and a movie. (There were several playing, undubbed, in Belgrade that we wanted to see.) 

Now, on the flight from Heathrow to Belgrade, I end up in a very long wait for the airplane bathroom and to pass the time, chatted with the woman waiting behind me. S is from Serbia, but she and her husband Z have lived in New Jersey for 12 years. She gave me their cell phone numbers, urging me to call them should we have any problems or need anything at all. After baggage claim, she had Z help us get a cab, and then she said “Come stay with us! We live about 90 kilometers away, and my mother in law has a big house!” Sure enough, Mom was nodding her head in agreement. Since we weren’t sure this was for real, since we had a shortish stay in Belgrade, since we didn’t know a thing about their town, and since we had, you know, just met them five minutes ago, we simply said thank you, and didn’t really think about it again. That’s because we were too dumb to notice that the very thing that we wanted to have happened happened, and not five minutes into our trip. 

Days pass, and we travel to Montenegro and back. It’s now Christmas Eve day. The night before, we went to a very large Orthodox church so that Steve could tape the services (his new passion; it’s like a free concert, twice a day), but despite being told by several different people that services were at 7pm, they weren’t held at all. So we returned for the 9am, and then decided to go to the nearby open air market, full of little old ladies selling ripe homemade cheese and other sights our trusty guidebook assured us was “the real Belgrade.” But when the walk trusty guidebook map claimed was but three blocks turned into eight, we stopped at a corner to get our bearings. Only to have a young man stop next to us and offer his help in perfect English. Turns out he was headed to the market too, and offered to take us there. 

V spent some years working as a broker, including a stint in London, but recently turned his back on the long hours and soulless work for some months spent “reading Russian novels” and living at home with his doting parents. We asked him about Orthodox Christmas and he insisted on taking us to Sveta Sava, the largest church in Belgrade, and asking the first priest he could find about services that evening. Throughout, he gave a running tour commentary on Belgrade, pointing out historical buildings, bombing sites and the like. He told us about the bombing (“since the power was out, my friends and I had to barbeque all the meat in the fridge, which is what we did every night, have barbeques and watch the bombs like they were fireworks. And that was my war.”). Then he took us out for coffee. While drinking, I asked him if we could use his cell phone to call S and assure her we were okay, and that we hadn’t called because we hadn’t needed her help, but thank you for the offer. I felt a little foolish calling–she had probably forgotten about us–but she had been so insistent about wanting to hear from us regularly. 

“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” exclaimed a delighted S. “Now, we want you to come over tomorrow to spend Christmas with us.” Er–really? Why, yes. But we have to fly back to Belgrade the next morning. No problem! They are on the same flight! They can drive us back! Then it turns out their flight was actually the day after ours, but no problem; just come out tonight, and spend the night. Well…okay. V, it turns out, is from that same area of the country and pronounced it well worth seeing, and so walked us to the bus station to get tickets, but not before we took a trip to the open air market that started this whole serendipitous adventure. Barrels of soft cheese, some feta-like, some more like creamy combination of creme fraiche and butter, various smoked and dried and cured animal parts, glass jars full of the local pepper puree, and more more more. Heavenly smelling, we wished we weren’t pressed for time so we could sample it all. 

But pressed we were–after all, we had to buy presents for our hosts (local candy, wine, a Serbian translation of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” because I liked it) and a few hours later, we were on a bus hurtling through the dark to who knows where. Seriously. Not sure where it was. Somewhere 120 slightly winding kilometers outside of Belgrade, in the countryside. Chacak, the town is called, and Z picked us up and took us to the sparklingly-decorated small flat he and S maintain, only to then tell us that his mom was expecting us, with a dinner feast ready to go (despite it being well after 10pm). Off we go to her place, to meet her and their two kids. And out comes the food. Dish after dish of food. It seems Serbians “fast” for some days before Christmas, and by “fast” they mean “avoid all animal byproducts except fish, but otherwise, stuff yourself.” And so we ate delicious smoked whole river fish, some kind of fatty smoked fish (smoked by them in their own smokehouse out back–wood smoke smell was everywhere out here in the country) that melted into a pure strong taste in our mouth, plus cabbage salad and an array of fancy desserts, all of which were, to our shock, homemade. Actually, everything was homemade, they said. S and Z were constantly amused by the US emphasis on “organic,” because they come from a place where everyone grows their own veggies and meat and so forth, and everyone makes their own nearly everything. (Witness V buying items at the market for his family’s Christmas dinner from the country people/farmers who sell their wares at the market.) We stop down first for a holiday custom; Z comes in saying “Merry Christmas!” three times, carrying branches of dead leaves, and each time his mother throws seeds, grains and coins at him for luck. Mom, by the way, waits on us at dinner and when we try to get her to sit down, Z shrugs it off. “No, don’t worry about it.” It’s just the way things are done. 

imgp0529By now it’s 11pm and continuing the theme of what will be our 36 hour excellent adventure, ie, a dizzying array of unexpected excellent events about which we have not been consulted, we are now told we are going to see S’s sister perform. Because she’s a big Serbian rock star–well, someone has to be–and she’s doing a solo show in town. Typical smoky bar, tight talented band, covers during the set rather than orignials, but he’s got a good strong voice and a feel for the lyrics that indicates she knows what she’s singing, rather than having just learned it phonetically. From there, we go to church, because, where else?

Orthodox Christmas celebrations start at midnight and go until 2am, and feature a big bonfire outside the church where, earlier in the day, everyone trooped around in procession for awhile, burning the elaborate arranges of pungent dead leaves and branches we had seen for sale all over Belgrade. (The symbolism is unclear. It may be having to do with the end of death as brought about by the birth of Christ.) The church was crammed to the seams, and the shelves that held prayer candles were so full one couldn’t stick another candle into the sand that held the tapers upright, because it was covered rock hard with melted candle wax. We basked in the smoke and the warmth and wondered about it all. 

So to bed around 3am, and in the morning we are greeted with a breakfast of fresh salami, local thin sliced ham (sort of like Spanish jambon), a Serbian staple of a kind of shredded roast pork that looks like tobacco, some of that feta-like cheese and the cream/butter combo which we are told is “serbian caviar” and another national dish. It gets mixed with excellent homemade cornmeal mush. There is also the red pepper spread, handmade by Z’s mother. There is more, but I think I forgot a few things. We see there is snow outside–remember, pitch black when we arrive–and that the town is a nice little hodge podge of late 1800’s architecture and much newer buildings. Z’s family used to raise hogs out back, so this is also partly rural/argriculture country. We are told that on this day one no longer says “Merry Christmas!” but instead a Serbian phrase meaning “Christ is born!” to which one responds with a phrase that basically says “Got that right.” (Actually, it translates as “Indeed, he IS born.”) We add this to our repertoire of six Serbian phrases. (Anyone we speak these to has the same reaction; surprise, pleasure, and amusement.) 


Around 11am, Z’s oldest friend and his wife arrive. The friend knows all about local history and so the six adults, plus the two kids, are going to drive around the area, looking at monasteries, and then we will come back and have a feast. Again, we’ve not been consulted about any plans, but as it happens, driving around looking at monasteries and then feasting is exactly how we wanted to spend our day. We are mighty impressed by their prescience. When we meet the whole roasted pig that will be the center of the feast, we are even happier. (This is the traditional dish for Serbian Christmas, and Z explained that while they have often roasted their own pig, it’s a local speciality; their area supplies many of the pigs for the rest of the country. So they just bought one this year.) 


Right, so into the minivan and off we go. We drive past horse-driven carts and other quaint things. Hey, where are we going? Well, we WERE going to several local monasteries, but they decided to take us to the two oldest and most famous ones in Serbia. Cool! Are they far? Farther that the local ones, but pretty close. Okay! So we chat–well, the personable and bright kids jabber with Steve, who is adorable with them, and I talk with Z and his friend, who understands some English and speaks less (sadly, because he is lovely and so very interesting), so there is translating going on. He in turn points out various historical spots along the route. Z explains about the war, about local politics, why he went to America, and more. As we drive. About 90 minutes into the drive, they ask us if we want some borak, which is a flakey savory pastry of layers of filo and either cheese or meat. Sure, but where are we…?–and a delicious smell fills the car, as we are presented with fresh, hot, homemade borak on a silver platter. I thought for sure they were whipping it up in the back seat, but no, Z’s friend’s mom made it, lest we get peckish on the drive. (Serbians, you may have gathered, like to eat. A lot. This is one of their many delightful qualities.) She has also ruined us for this Serbian snack, because hers was by far the best we have eaten and never again will we be satisfied by anything less. 

And we are driving through steep mountains, alternating snow and green vistas, and there are ruined castles and gushing rivers, and I ask Z how close we are, and he says not far, and so another hour passes. We learn we are about 10 miles from Kosovo and that “bullet proof vests are under your seat.” (Kidding, but we weren’t going there anyway. Z, who used to be in the Army, says its the worst place he’s ever been and that was before the war. Also, we didn’t have our passports.) Z explains that the area we were in was now about 80% Muslim (and Albanian) in contrast to the 85% Orthodox makeup of the rest of Serbia. We hit a chaotic dusty dirty small city, in the throes of market day, mostly Islamic, and so where there had been in the places we had driven through earlier in the day the domes of Orthodox churches were now the spires of mosques. They get lost, and lost some more, and we twist through neighborhoods full of shacks, tiny cobbly streets, poverty and dirt and confusion and life and energy, a way of living and economic status totally unexpected in what is supposed to be First World Europe. I can’t do it justice but at some point I thought this was the most exotic place we had ever been. Indonesia, Thailand, Morrocco, Peru–you expect it to be different, but not here, not quite like this, not so radically, not so close to relatively cosmopolitan Belgrade, with its Belle Epoque architecture, internet connections and high fashion stores. It was waking up on the moon. 

And we are still driving, but now uphill in the right direction, and we finally land at Serbia’s second oldest monastery, built roughly 1100 or 1200. The church interior is covered with glowing near-pastel fresco (“Art historians agree this are the best in the world!” said a happy monk, and I thought “Well, Leonardo’s Last Supper is considered rather highly, but never mind.”), which had been left open to the elements for centuries after the place was bombed and the roof destroyed by the Turks back in 15-whatever. It was restored in 1929, and the paintings, of the Annuciation, of various Saints, of a Crucifixion as powerful as a punch, are remarkable works of art, graceful and deeply moving. We strolled around the melted-snowy grounds before heading to the gift shop so that Steve could continue to look for CD’s of Orthodox music, and every member of our party could turn to me and say “Here, Mary, this is for you” and hand me some pretty little booklet about the place, or a map to Belgrade monasteries or some other gift. This on top of the drive, the borak, the room for the night, the pig yet to come. “Why??” I said to Steve, “this generosity, where is it coming from?” and we still don’t know. 

From there, we retrace our steps and Z says we are going to the oldest Serbian monastary on our way home. But we’ve come a long way, and it’s getting dark. But the Plan Is Not To Be Denied, and also it’s not far. Which totally isn’t true, because it’s hours later before we crawl our way up the even steeper, very narrow and thrillingly icy road through the rapidly fading light. It’s quixotic, as we will spend nearly two hours for what will prove a fifteen minute visit. We crunch through snow in the twilight to enter the towering Gothic church (circa 1090), which is dark but for some flickering candles and one or two light bulbs. A monk tells us about various uncorrupted saintly bodies enscounced within, including one he claims is fresh as a daisy despite being roughly 800 years old, and that he is displayed–and touched!–every Sunday. Which it is. But despite my pleas of calender consistency,we missed the viewing and there will not be a second one. At one point, it’s service time, and while we MUST go (it’s dark now, and the road is icy and narrow), we stop to hear the first bit, in the stone grand nave of the church, lit only by a chandelier of candles, amid billowing black robes of priests flung deep into their devotions, our breath steaming in front of us and then the deep tolling of the bells. It was 45 seconds of pure, visceral, crackling sensory ecstasy and it made every bit of effort to get there worthwhile. 

imgp0540And so back down the mountain we go, as Z says home is only about 60 miles away. By now, you’d think I’d learn. Time passes. More time passes. Speaking of which, the last bus to Belgrade–a nearly three hour ride–leaves at 8pm, and we are coming up on 6pm, and by now we’ve assumed we aren’t staying for dinner. Oh, yes, we are, they are not to be denied, and, frankly, we want pig! So Z and his friend consult and it’s concluded that we can take a cab back to Belgrade for not much more than two bus tickets, and a somewhat faster ride. We have to leave for our flight around 7am (and we need some sleep as we are going the next day to hang out with old friends in London, and we don’t want to be all nodding off, sleep deprived for our precious evening together), but we do the math and figure that if we leave at, say, 9pm in the cab, that gets us to Belgrade with enough time to pack up and the other things we have to do and still get a reasonable night’s sleep.

Time passes. Still driving. We eventually get back to Chacak, and we, naturally, have to drop off the friends first, as they are late for their Christmas dinner, and then we get back to Z’s mom’s house, and to meet some more relatives, and also, pig! v Oh, delectable, and there was homemade chicken soup, and two kinds of salad, and all the other things, the cheeses and the meats and the pepper spread, and it turns out that Z’s mom has worked as a chef. No kidding. We visit with other family members, and time passes, and we pack up, and the kids, who have been really good all day, descend into that constant squabbling that is what kids do when they are tired, and we think it’s about time to call that cab, but Z is missing and we can’t leave without saying goodbye, and the clock ticks, and more time passes, and Z finally appears and we say “About that cab?” and he and S say “We are going to take you to our house, and you will get it there.” Ours is not to reason why about anything, and so we get in the car, and S says “I hope you don’t mind, but I have this friend, and her daughter is in a wheelchair, but she makes these icons, and she wanted to meet you and give you a present. So if it’s okay, we can stop there on the way to our flat?” What are we going to say? 

It seems the friend is a rather well known local journalist, and she lives with her tween age daughter and older girl, who is 22 but looks 14, and has severe cerebral palsy, of the sort that leaves her with only minimal control of her left hand and nothing else. We are greeted with cake and coffee, and we resign ourselves to what clearly will not be a quick “how d’ya do? Gotta go” visit. At some point I murmer to Steve “Just go with it,” and he agrees. 

Which is more than okay, because we learn this story; Journalist Mom, who does religion reports for the national news, took her daughter (pause here to show us a photo album of the daughter with various Serbian celebrities) to meet the Serbian Orthodox Patriach (widely regarded as a living saint; pause here to show us a TV program Mom produced on him), and right afterward, the girl, who cannot dress nor feed herself, began working with seeds, rice and paint to produce icons. It’s a miracle! They all exclaimed. Well, all right, we said…and then they produced several examples. And it’s…gallery worthy outsider art, I mean, it’s flat-out incredible. “Primative”, sure, but it’s quality art even without the story, and with the story, it’s unbelievable. There is at least one piece which depicts the girl herself, in her wheelchair, dreaming this all up. It should immediately go in a museum. They take us into her bedroom, and demonstrate the impossible process; her sister sets up her tools and puts the brush into her hand, and then the girl heartbreakingly slowly and laboriously places glue on the page, and puts, one at an agonizing time, a grain of rice (or seed or whatever) in place. Over and over, for hours and hours and hours. It’s flabberghasting. And a true example of the kind of mystic ecstasy the devotional act of icon-producing is supposed to be. 

So as we are processing this, Mom brings out a frame and says “We want you to have this.” Now, I had been hoping to buy a nice Mary icon on our trip but I never found one I liked. What did she hand me? Oh, you know. And it’s stunning. Again, folk art, but just what I would have chosen. Meanwhile, I add this; before we left, Dr. W, he of the normal tumor markers success, asks me to bring him a Serbian flag, so he can hang it in his office along with my photo, for his other patients, to show them what is possible, even with cancer mets. We kept saying during the trip “Must get the flag for Dr. W.” But we hadn’t. So what did Journalist Mom hand me next? Hours before we were about to leave the country? Why, isn’t that such a perfect little Serbian flag? At this point, I don’t know what to do, except tell the story to S, who translates to Journalist Mom, whereupon they both burst into tears and cross themselves repeatedly. What the hell–I join in. 

It turns out that they have not really ever thought about selling her art, which is hard to imagine, as we know at least two galleries in New Orleans that would take her stuff in a heartbeat, not to mention any number of friends who would buy it. So we started planning to help her out, and also to maybe do some stories about her once we get home. Speaking of which, it’s getting really rather late–two hour plus drive to Belgrade and packing and all the rest–but we have to listen to the other daughter play the piano (I asked; I thought she might get overlooked because of her sister a great deal) and also have the artist sign her work, which involves Mom first writing on the painting, and then getting ready to hand the pen to her daughter, but constantly getting distracted and walking away to show us something else. And then we are asked to participate in a traditional Christmas ritual (burning those dead aromatic leaves in a small bowl) and then there are the extended goodbyes. At this point, I really was thinking we weren’t ever, ever going to be allowed to leave. And I felt horribly guilty even thinking it. Because after all, this has been a day, a day of serendipity and adventure and sharing, and the only thing wrong, really, was that we were trying to do it all in a day. These lovely, gracious people, they wanted us to come out earlier, to stay awhile, for good reason, because they had so much to show us, to share with us, and we were too American to understand our great good fortune until it was nearly too late. 

But finally, we did leave, of course, full of exaltation and exhaustion in equal measure. We made it back to Belgrade a mere four hours later than we intended, but what’s a little no sleep compared to this. 

A couple of photos to follow. And Dr. W liked his flag very much.

Hristos se Rodi! Voistinu se Rodi!*



Sixty years ago today, Louis Hochman was working on an oil well near Durango, Colorado — “sitting on a well” is how they said it. He was a petroleum geologist employed by Conoco. At some point that afternoon he climbed a telephone pole, tapped into a line and dialed a number in Casper, Wyoming, more than 500 miles away, to get news that I had arrived. His first child.

The anxiety he felt must have been intense, not just from being so far away for the blessed event, but that just two years ago, while he and my mom were living in Olympia, Washington,  she had nearly died in pregnancy from a kidney infection. The baby girl was stillborn. After that, a doctor had told them that it was too risky to try having kids again.

A couple of years ago, going through things after Mom died at age 84, having had me and two more kids, we found a letter Dad wrote around that time indicating that he drove to Casper as soon as he could, caught a look at me in the newbies ward, said hello to Mom, then turned right back around to head back to work. That was paternity leave in the Eisenhower years. We also found the photo shared here, likely the first one of him with me, probably a few days later.

Imagine what thoughts went through his head on that 1000-mile round trip. He was elated, certainly. But also likely worried. He was 36 at the time. Not only had he lost a child and nearly lost his wife, but he’d lost his own mom not long ago then, to cancer. He’d landed at Utah Beach 12 years before, returned to grad school at Stanford to get a degree in the field he loved, reenlisted as a Corp of Engineers officer in Korea mapping the topography to let the grunts “build bridges so that the Koreans could blow them up.” And now he was based in Wyoming, with a new son, and an uncertain future — the oil business had taken a bit of a dip and the company wanted to transfer him, a Jew, to Saudi Arabia. Transfer us to Saudi Arabia.

Instead, they (we) moved back to Santa Barbara, where Mom was born and raised and where Dad’s dad had moved after his wife died. Dad wound up giving up his beloved geology and became an hotelier, running a hotel his father-in-law built. We never heard him express any regrets, and disappointment in how his life had turned, though he jumped at the chance to talk geology with us — every family driving trip would feature lessons along the way: “See how that strata is angled up? That’s from the pressures of the continental plates coming together.” “Out there across the valley, look at how those alluvial fans spread out across the base of the hills…” And I very well remember walking in while he was watching news footage of Mt. St. Helens erupting, a look of pure joy on his face, before he had to sheepishly note that yes, this was a great event for geology, but at the cost of peoples’ lives.

When Dad turned 60, I was midway between 23 and 24 and, after a stint in New Mexico taking a documentary film program, was temporarily back in Santa Barbara, living with the folks and working for Dad at the hotel. I’d worked a lot for him at the hotel starting when I was 10 — bell-hopping, pulling weeds, adding chlorine to the pool, helping the housekeepers, working the old PBX switchboard, doing the books, checking in guests, trouble-shooting. My greatest memories were just watching him interact with the guests. He loved that so much, getting peoples’ stories, where they were from, where they were going. Everything. And he was so at ease with that. He was unfailingly kind, always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt, see their better nature. It took a lot to get him to think ill of anyone. That goes for him as a dad, too. Patience seemingly unbound, with a perfect instinct as to when to be indulgent, when to draw a line. Always interested in whatever we had to say, whatever interested us. Always eager to see our passions grow. And music. Oh, music. He played violin in various community groups, including the Santa Barbara Symphony for a while. And never cared what music I loved, just that I loved it.

This, though, was my first chance to be with him so much as an adult. Er, “adult.” Even if for just a few months before I moved back to L.A. to get going on my own again. And his kindness, his patience, his genuine, tireless interest in people made a deeper, more conscious impression on me. I treasure that time.

But one thing our parents didn’t tell us then was that Dad had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. They didn’t let us know for a few more years, when symptoms were hard to overlook. Never was sure why they didn’t tell us, but it doesn’t really matter. At the time, sure he had some leg shakes when he was sitting, and some hand tremors. And he took some medications, but that’s what grownups do, right?

As the Parkinson’s progressed (funny word to use for a disease, progressed) things got difficult, for him and mom taking care of him. He’d fall, of course. He had more and more trouble swallowing. The rotations of medication would stop working, or worse cause other problems, including some severe hallucinations that, understandably, freaked Mom out pretty badly. He’d get obsessed with the prospects of some new treatment or experimental operation, though it was clear that it would not help his particular condition and might be horribly harmful. We heard all this from Mom, not from him. He never said a word of complaint to us. Even when things were a struggle, he was upbeat, happy, to us.

When he could no longer play violin due to his tremors and diminished dexterity, he tried mandolin and harmonica, with enough success to give him pleasure at making music.  And there was tennis, the other passion alongside music. He played three, four, five time a week for as long as I could remember. If he was ever disappointed in his kids it was that he could never get us to share that passion on that level. But it got harder and harder.

For his 75th birthday we had a surprised tennis tournament for him — he was lured out to the courts on false, lame prospects, to see family and friends gathered. We all took turns playing doubles. Everyone wanted to play with or against him, of course. He still had some of his old tricks (he was the master of the spin-shot or sneaky drop). But just getting his feet to move was tough. Still, he had the time of his life. And when it was over, he hung up his racket. Never played again. Never expressed a word of regret, again. At least to us. And that was the case right to his death five years later, just a couple of days after his 80th birthday. We’d taken him to Disneyland for the birthday (his request). A wonderful day for all, him beaming throughout. A final image of him that sticks with me, capturing of his nature.

As I turn 60 today, I’m thinking of him a lot. My wish is that I could have more of his patience, more of his spirit, more of his kindness. There would be no achievement greater for me to honor him that way.

… and Counting.

On Aug. 13, 1966, my dad took me to my first rock concert. He had no idea what he was starting.

Aug. 13, 1966

Santa Barbara, California

The capes. It’s the capes. The first thing that comes to mind about that day. We’d gotten there early, pulled into the sparsely occupied parking lot — which car would we have been in? The ’57 Mercury Monterrey with the push-button panel for the automatic transition on the dash to the left of the steering wheel? Probably. Or was it the still-new ’65 Chevy Impala wagon, white body with turquoise top and interior, the backward-facing seat in the way back folded down in wait for some special occasion?

We got out of the car, between the early-afternoon traffic buzzing lightly on Las Positas Rd. up at the top of the succulent strewn slope and the mild activity at the entry to the yellow-domed Orchid Show Hall here at the Earl Warren Showgrounds complex. I’d been here many times for said Orchid Show, for gem shows with Aunt Hester and Uncle Harold, I think for a car show once. We’d been to horse shows in the adjacent open-aired ring, though we’d come regularly in the next decade when Karen became a mainstay on the youth horse-show circuit here. We’d even come in a few years to see the L.A. T-Birds roller derby team making a road-trip appearance, Mom, Dad, Karen, Daniel and me the odd-fit upper-middle-class white family in the largely working class, largely Hispanic and wildly exuberant crowd.

But here, today,  as we got out of the car and started toward the dome, were the capes, being carried on hangers, shrouded in flimsy clear dry-cleaner plastic, from a car a few slots away. Red with black trim. The capes. Or were they black with red trim? Whichever, I was excited just to see them. I probably said something to my dad.

“It’s what they wear! The Count Five!”

Or maybe I just thought it to myself. In any case, I was buzzing, bursting. It was great already. And we were still in the parking lot.

I don’t remember how I talked Dad into this. It wasn’t the kind of thing my parents had shown inclination to allow before. They weren’t nasty about it or anything. It’s not like a lot of 9-year-olds were going to rock concerts in those days.

I’d hear concerts promoted breathlessly on Santa Barbara’s KIST-AM and KACY-AM from just down the coast in Pt. Hueneme, by “Barron” Ron Harron and the other disc jockeys — I can still sing the jingles: “K-I-S-T… thirteen forty!” “Fifteen-twenty, K-A-C-Y” And there were the “Get KIST” bumper stickers around town. I was devoted to the stations, listening any chance I had on my little, black Sears Silvertone transistor radio my parents got for me the year before. Karen and I made signs to put in the car window in hopes we’d be spotted by the KIST Patrol and given whatever fabulous prized they had. Once I even sat in the front yard with a sign, thinking that maybe the Patrol would just happen by and see me. I tried to call in for giveaways, but never won:

“We’ve got something special for the sixth caller who can tell us the name of the group playing this new song. Here’s a hint… it rhymes with ‘Kind Fenders.’”

Busy signal. Busy signal. Busy signal. RINGING!

“The Mind Benders! The Mind Benders!”

“That’s right, but we already have a winner. Better luck next time….”


It was a world I wanted to be in, but could not. The shows advertised on the station, or on the marquee of the Earl Warren, seen from the school bus many morning as we passed along, were as distant as the moon. Once the Animals were going to be there. Eric Burdon! I wanted to go so badly. I asked my mom.

“You’re too young. They have an age limit.”

I called the station to find out. They would have to know, right? Who else could I call?

“It’s open to any age, we think,” I was told, and I told my mom that.

“They mean any age older. Not younger. You are not old enough. It’s too late. It wouldn’t be safe.”

But then came word of this Saturday matinee. I asked. They said yes. Here we were.

It must have been a 15 minute wait for the doors to open, though it likely felt much longer. When they let us in there couldn’t have been more than two dozen people there. Inside, straight ahead about three-quarters of the way across the plain concrete floor — no seats, just standing — was a stage, nothing fancy, just a platform with a curtain along the back and some instruments ready for the opening act, a group from Ventura (I think) called the Melody Men (I think). When they started playing there were maybe 60 people inside. They sounded, well, I don’t really have any memory of how they sounded.

When the second band came out, introduced by Harron, then of KACY but later to be on KIST, there were perhaps 150 people inside. And I remember how they sounded, as well I should. You may have heard of them. The Rascals. Though they were still the Young Rascals at that time.

But as soon as they started they had to stop. Felix Cavaliere’s B3 crapped out after just a few notes. It felt like it took half an hour to get it fixed. Given that this was all new to me, I’m sure I figured this kind of technical difficulty was business as usual for rock concerts. Fifty years and thousands of concerts later, I was right.

My dad and I walked around the inside of the hall a little in that time. All those people there looked so…. mature! Teenagers! Some of them must have been at least 16! Guys in slacks, ironed Oxford shirts, black-rimmed glasses, hair just slightly out of trim. Girls in skirts or summer dresses. So this is what a rock crowd looked like, though I already knew that from watching the afternoon dance shows we got on the L.A. stations: Lloyd Thaxton’s “Dance Party” on Channel 13, “Boss City” on KHJ, and of course the weekend national “American Bandstand,” which I’d probably watched that morning.

The organ finally fixed, the Young Rascals resumed, Cavaliere coaxing those cool soul sounds from the keys, Eddie Brigati in a sporty cap, shaking maracas as he sang, and making the biggest impression, Dino Danelli at the drums, twilling his sticks like a baton, bouncing them on the drums and letting go so they flung 20 feet into the air, catching them as they came back down without missing a beat. (Poor guitarist Gene Cornish. I can’t recall a single thing about him.)

They played “In the Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally.” They played “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” and, my favorite of theirs at the time, “Good Lovin’,” both songs having been and national hits, the latter hitting No. 1 earlier in the year. They played “You Better Run,” which had made it to No. 20 nationally that spring. And I think they played “Groovin’.” though that may be a faulty memory, as the song wasn’t even released until the next March.

And then…. what I was there for. San Jose’s Count Five. The capes. The hit. Destined to be their only hit, though we didn’t know that at the time. Harron even came back on stage to introduce their “new single,” a song called “Double Decker Bus.” I remember later hearing it on the radio…. never. Not once. Zippo. One hit and Count Five was down for the count.

But that day? Excitement! Elation! Funny thing, what I remember being most interested in from their performance was to see just how they made that chicka-chicka-chicka sound during the frantic instrumental rave-ups in the middle and at the end of “Psychotic Reaction.” I perked up every time the song came on the radio, lived everything about it, the bluesy twang of the electric guitar lick, the thumping drums, the what-the-hell-does-that-mean words …. and those rave-ups — blasting into high gear, verging on total chaos, and then stepping down back into the song proper. Whew! What a ride! Did I get at the time how much it was all a Yardbirds cop? Not sure. Maybe. Doesn’t really matter.

Oh, that sound. The rhythm guitarist damped the strings way up by the pickups with his left hand while strumming rapidly with his right. Genius! Well, no. Pretty simple and hardly original. But I was 9. It was an epiphany, first of its kind in a series of…. any counting. Count Five.

And it was over. No memory of exiting the hall. No memory of the drive home (about a mile). No memory of asking my dad what he thought, or of him volunteering same. We must have talked. He must have said something about it being loud. But I know with absolute certainty that he had a big smile, as big as mine, sharing my joy. He loved music. He didn’t love my music (though over the years our tastes intersected, with some delight). But he loved that I loved music, that I shared a passion he had for it, even if it manifest in different tastes.

I wonder if he ever thought back to that day, if when he watched my life as a professional concert-goer develop he connected it, saw his part in it. I hope he did. I think of it often, and more than anything else about it, I cherish the mental picture of being in that parking lot, seeing the capes, Dad at my side.


Many, many years later I was visiting my friend Tony Berg at the Beverly Hills offices of the Virgin Records label, where he was then the head of A&R. He introduced me to his new assistant, Brandon, and quickly I noticed a poster at the assistant’s desk, a classic ‘60s style advertising a Doors concert at, of all places, Earl Warren Showgrounds.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked.

He said, “Oh, my dad was the promoter for that show.”

I said, “Your dad is Jim Salzer?”

Indeed he was. Jim Salzer Presents was the name attached to all those shows I wanted to see, the name on the radio ads of as mythic proportions as the names of the artists. I told Brandon about that ’66 afternoon of my first concert and he was thrilled. The next day he emailed me and asked if I had a fax number. Within an hour the fax spat out a treat from him, a copy of the Rascals’ contract from that date, though it was for the evening show at the same locale, in which they were headlining. At some point over the years I think I figured out that the show I saw was just a little KIST-sponsored event, but the “real” concert had been that night. And of course the Rascals, with multiple hits, had the top billing over the new kids.

I’m sure that was great too. There were probably kids there attending their first rock concert. I hope their memories are as good as mine of the afternoon show. I hope that started something big for them too. But for me, Aug. 13, 1966 is all about Count Five — now plus five decades, with thousands of concerts. And counting.count_five_psychotic_reaction_psychedelic_rocknroll_garage_punk_nuggets_san_josehouse_dracula