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How I Got To Willits

I first came to Willits in late summer of 1971 because a fellow worker at the Tides Bookstore in Sausalito invited me up to see the property his girlfriend’s family bought north of Willits. Daniel, not Dan or Danny, if you know what I mean, was a grandson of a famous boat designer, naval architect, editor and author of books and magazines. The bottom line was Daniel had a trust fund set up so he didn’t have to work, but that gets boring, so he got his babysitter pregnant, gave his wife the house, and took a part-time job at the Tides Bookstore.

Daniel was living with Stephanie and their little boy Max at her mom’s house in San Francisco, spending some weekends up on their Mendocino property, but he didn’t seem to be a back-to-the-land kind of guy. He was not snobbish or uppity, just a cool, easy going dude with, according to a female admirer, “bedroom eyes.” Of course Daniel and Stephanie eventually split up, and he moved to the windward side of Oahu with a new woman, but I haven’t seen or heard from him since 1986 when I was told by his new woman that he was in a 30-day detox center. He did like to drink, but I never saw him drunk, unless you count falling asleep during our conversations — I know I’m loquacious, dude, but wake up!

Speaking of drinking, one cool thing about the Tides location was that the No Name Bar, a favorite saloon for local celebs and boat people, happened to be right next door. On my once-a-week daytime shift I liked to drop in for a pint of Anchor Steam, before walking down the street and getting fish and chips, before rowing out to my boat for the night.

One time I sat at the bar next to Spike Africa, a local legend who had been Sterling Hayden’s first mate on the Wanderer in 1958 when Hayden defied a court order after a bitter divorce and sailed from Sausalito to Tahiti with his four kids. After Hayden returned he rented a pilot house on the Berkeley, a retired ferryboat docked in Sausalito, where many retired boats ended up, and wrote his autobiography, Wanderer, which was published in 1963. By the time I got there in 1969 Hayden was living on a canal barge in Paris on the river Seine. His daughter Dana, an attractive blond, lived in an old caboose just north of downtown, on what was left of the original train tracks that ran parallel to Bridgeway Avenue.

What I remember about my conversation with Spike that evening was after mentioning, in an apologetic way, that my little sailboat was not seaworthy and had no motor, he told me that’s the best way to learn how to sail, especially around this Bay with the strong currents due to the relatively narrow Golden Gate. He added that if you learn how to sail in the San Francisco Bay you can sail anywhere in the world, and went on about “these so-called sailors in their plastic boats that turn on their engines whenever they get into trouble. What if their engines don’t start?” And he chuckled at the thought.

That conversation really cheered me up and made me feel good about my sailing abilities, and it didn’t hurt when Peter, the bartender, filled up my glass again, no charge, just because I was conversing with Spike Africa! I mean, who doesn’t get excited around celebrities? Maybe other celebrities?

Speaking of celebrities, according to Joe Tate, a long-time local sailor and musician who plays at the No Name every Saturday night, “I know that Marilyn Monroe and Burt Lancaster came in one night. While she sat in the corner near the stage, Burt got drunk and had to be ejected!” Joe also mentioned that the No Name now has a bust of Spike Africa.

Then there were the many young women who would come in the bookstore, occasionally high on something or other, sometimes just high on life, and wanted to tell someone about it. Like the chick who came every week after getting out of Monday Night Class, and wanted to tell me all about it. Her eyes sparkled with love for this guru Gaskin, which made me think either this guy was good, or she was nuts. It was actually called Monday Night Class, and the leader eventually got dozens of young followers together in several buses and caravanned back east, eventually starting a farming commune in Tennessee.

Some folks just came in for the coffee — we brewed coffee right next to the counter — and to chat. One woman looked at me and said, “Don’t I know you?” It turned out to be someone I barely knew from high school back in Milwaukee who was now living in Point Richmond with the guy who used to date the girl I took to the Junior Prom. But I didn’t know that yet. She waited until I got off of work and we went next door for a beer. We ended up back at her place, and though it did seem like she was living with someone, she didn’t mention anyone and didn’t seem concerned. She came in again a few days later, but then I didn’t hear from her for a few weeks. I never got her number so one evening I thought I’d surprise her and stop by. He opened the door and looked at me like WTF are you doing here?! I made something up that sounded really lame, and she said from the other room, “Who is it, honey?”

After nearly a year as a part-time employee they offered me the job of paperback book buyer, to replace David, a nice English bloke who quit, eventually starting his own bookstore in Mill Valley. My first question was do I have to work full-time, and the answer was, “Yes, six days a week.”

From the moment I declined their offer things seemed to change. For one, my friend, Greg Baker, asked me to help him build a new boat, so I quit the Tides, only to be told a short time later that Greg couldn’t get funding, so once again I was unemployed. Luckily, I qualified for unemployment because I quit one job for another job and that job didn’t pan out. I got the minimum $26 a week, which was enough, with food stamps, to continue my humble lifestyle.

Sometime after that I drove up to Mendocino County with Daniel to check out the property. We stopped in Willits at an ice cream shop run by three elderly sisters, which later wound up in the Mendocino County Museum. The sisters didn’t really look alike, but they dressed the same, wore the same red lipstick to match their aprons, and had their grey hair styled in perms. I remember one being friendlier than the other two, not that I could remember who was who. Next time you’re in Willits, if you haven’t done so before, check it out. It’s a real 70s flashback.

Oh, and while you’re there, check out Andree O’Connor’s hippie van, and the photo showing her rose tattoo where her breast used to be. Yes, she had a mastectomy after having been diagnosed with breast cancer, and that photo of her rose tattoo, besides being on the cover of the local New Settler magazine displayed in the museum, was also in the national magazine, New Woman, which in today’s speak, went viral, “giving way to acclaim and publication in books and magazines nationally and internationally, thereby bringing much needed attention to the worldwide problem of breast cancer… She also appeared on the NBC Today Show in an interview about her choice.”

That was from her obit. After a recurrence of the cancer in December of 2000, her wry sense of humor to the end, she planned her death by dressing in black and inviting a couple of close friends to be with her as she peacefully died in her home on January 13, 2001.

I mention Andree because I knew her in Sausalito. In fact, we dated for a short time in the late spring of 1971. I first noticed her on Gene Lee’s 30-foot lifeboat conversion that was tied up on the same finger dock at Gate 6 that I usually tied my little dory while ashore.

Gene Lee was a chick magnet, always seeming to be the first choice of new female faces in the neighborhood, until he met Bonnie and they started doing heroin. The first time I ever shot heroin was with Gene in his van in the Ark parking lot. I should be embarrassed to admit that, but I was in my experiment-with-drugs phase, and what I learned was I really liked heroin so I better not take it again until I’m old and on my deathbed. Okay, I took it one more time with Hank the Hipster, but he called it a speedball, and I swear that was the last time! Anyhow, I’d like to think that Andree went out high on heroin. Modern medicine doesn’t get much better than that.

The first time I met Andree was at a neighborhood party. She had a cute face surrounded by a light brown afro, her braless breasts peeking seductively through her loose fitting top, everything else hidden by a maxi skirt. Anyhow, I ended up back on her boat, but not for the night, which I could live with, though I did want to stay, for a few reasons. I mean, I’d had a bit much to smoke and drink, and my boat had recently blown onto the rocks at Strawberry Point during the last southerly storm at high tide. So I had to wait about two weeks for the tide to get high enough to pull it off the rocks.

Meanwhile, to get home wasn’t that easy. I’d have to row across the bay to Strawberry Point, negotiate the rocks and make sure my dory was safe from getting banged up by any rogue waves in the middle of the night. I guess the other reason I didn’t want to go home that night was she made me real horny.

The next morning I wrote a poem for Andree and gave it to her that evening. She seemed more surprised than impressed, but my plan worked and she let me stay the night. We hung out for a few weeks, long enough for me to get my boat off the rocks and take her sailing. I have one photo of her sitting on my cabin holding her knees up under her maxi skirt, her smile almost visible through her fuzzy hairdo. There wasn’t much wind so we floated with the out-going tide past the dry docks (now gone), and as usual the wind picked up about the time the Golden Gate Bridge was fully visible. But the tide was changing so we sailed in a big circle and headed back.

No, we didn’t really become a couple, I mean, it was the era of free love and hippie chicks were like free candy to a sugar junky, which made it more difficult to hang with one woman. And then one day she was gone. I think she bought Gene Lee’s van and hit the road, and I must say, the one in the Willits museum sure looks like it.

Anyhow, a week later there was a feature article by her in the Sunday Chronicle’s California Living Magazine about the Gates, with photos. I never saw her again. Well, not in person, but about 20 years later I was listening to a KMFB radio show out of Fort Bragg called “On the Record,” with host Ed Kowas, and heard her voice. At first I didn’t really think it was her, but it was, and I found out she and Ed were a couple.

Daniel and I made it up to their property and he showed me around. There were no structures, but I noticed a decent size pile of new dimensional redwood. He told me the story of how it got there. A neighbor noticed a few railroad cars, including one flat car full of redwood lumber, left down by Outlet Creek just east of Highway 101. It sat there for days, so one weekend Daniel came up and helped his neighbor remove it. I asked what he was going to build with it, which prompted him to say, “You’re welcome to come up and build something with it.”

The thought of getting away from the waterfront for the winter really appealed to me. And to build a small structure in the wilderness was also something I suddenly wanted to do. About that time I met Yvonne, the future mother of both my boys. She liked the idea, too, so we decided to do it. I sold my boat to Jeremy for $500, which I figured with my meager unemployment, food stamps from Marin, and bulk food from Mendocino, was enough to make it through the winter.

(To be continued…or until the flashbacks abate.)

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