The Great Tree Race… Blogging My Book on “MisAdventures”

Incense cedar tree in Diamond Springs graveyard

A view of the tall incense cedar in the Graveyard today.


Two incense cedars dominated the Graveyard. From an under five-foot perspective, they were gigantic, stretching some 75-feet skyward. The limbs of the largest tree started 20 feet up and provided scant hope for climbing. As usual, my brother Marshall found a risky way around the problem.

Several of the lower limbs came tantalizingly close to the ground at their tips. One could be reached by standing on a convenient flat tombstone. But only Marshall could reach it; I was frustratingly short by several inches. Marsh would make a leap, grasp the limb and shimmy up it hanging butt down until it became large enough for him to work his way around to the top. Then he would crawl up to the tree trunk, five Curtis lengths off the ground. After that, he would climb to wonderfully mysterious heights I could only dream about.

Eventually I grew tall enough to make my first triumphant journey up the limb. Then, very carefully, I climbed to the heart-stopping top, limb by limb. All of Diamond Springs spread out before me. I could see our school, and Caldor (the lumber mill where my father worked), and the woods, and the hill with a Cross where I had shivered my way through an Easter Sunrise Service. I could see my whole world. Except for a slight wind that made the tree top sway and stirred my imagination about the far away ground, I figured I was as close to Heaven as I would ever get.

View of Caldor Lumber company circa 1958

The view from the top of the incense cedar tree in the Graveyard looking toward Caldor Lumber Company circa 1958. The mill had already closed down by this time.

By the time I finally made it to the top, Marshall had more grandiose plans for the tree. We would build a tree house in the upper branches. Off we went to Caldor to liberate some two by fours. Then we raided Pop’s tool shed for a hammer, nails, and rope. My job was to be the ground man while Marshall climbed up to the top. He would then lower the rope and I would tie on a board that he would hoist up and nail in. It was a good plan, or so we thought.

Along about the third board, Pop showed up. It wasn’t so much that we wanted to build a tree fort in the Graveyard that bothered him, or that we had borrowed his tools without asking. He even seemed to ignore the liberated lumber. His concern was that we were building our fort too close to the top of the tree on thin limbs that would easily break with nails that barely reached through the boards. After he graphically described the potential results, even Marshall had second thoughts. Pop had a solution though. He would build us a proper tree house on the large limbs that were only 20 feet off the ground. He would also add a ladder so we could avoid our tombstone-shimmy-up-the-limb route.

And he did. It was a magnificent open tree house of Swiss Family Robinson proportions that easily accommodated our buddies and us with room to spare. Hidden in the tree and hidden in the middle of the Graveyard, it became our special hangout where we could escape everything except the call to dinner. It became my center for daydreaming and Marshall’s center for mischief planning. He, along with our friends Allen and Lee, would plan our forays into Diamond designed to terrorize the local populace.

Cedar tree in Great Tree Race, Diamond Springs, CA

Looking up from the base of the tree today. The aging fellow is 65 years older from the days when I mastered climbing it. Pop’s tree house was built on the lower left limbs.

It also became the starting point for the Great Tree Race. We would scramble to the top and back down in one on one competition as quickly as we could. Slips were a common hazard. Unfortunately, the other boys always beat me; they were two to three years older and I was the one most susceptible to slipping. My steady diet of Tarzan comic books sustained me though and I refused to give up.  Eventually, several years later, I would triumph.

Marshall was taking a teenage time-out with Mother’s parents who had moved to Watsonville, down on the Central Coast of California. Each day I went to the Graveyard and took several practice-runs up the tree. I became half monkey. Each limb was memorized and an optimum route chosen. Tree climbing muscles bulged; my grip became iron and my nerves steel. Finally, the big day arrived and Marshall came home. He was every bit the big brother who had had been away at high school while little brother stayed at home and finished grade school. He talked of cars and girls and wild parties and of his friend Dwight who could knock people out with one punch. I casually mentioned the possibility of a race to the top of the Tree. What a set up. Two pack-a-day, sixteen-year old, cigarette smokers aren’t into tree climbing, but how can you resist a challenge from your little brother.

Off we went. Marsh didn’t stand a chance. It was payback time for years of big brother hassles. I flew up and down the tree. I hardly touched the limbs. Slip? So what, I would catch the next limb. Marsh was about half way up the tree when I passed him on my way down. I showed no mercy and greeted him with a grin when he arrived, huffing and puffing, back at the tree house. His sense of humor was minimal. He challenged me to a wrestling match and I pinned him to the ground. It was the end of the Great Tree Race, the end of big brother domination, and a fitting end to my years of associating with dead people.

Cedar tree spike in Diamond Springs Ca

This spike is all that remains of our treehouse dreams. As I recall, Marshall drove it into the tree with thoughts of several more to provide a way up the tree.

Cut down incense cedar tree in Diamond Springs graveyard

The jungle of Heavenly Trees that once covered the Graveyard has long since been tamed. Imagine my dismay during my last visit to Diamond Springs when I found that the cedar tree’s twin in the Graveyard had been cut down.  Could our tree be far behind?


MONDAY’S Travel Blog POST: A continuation of the trip through the Grand Canyon. How did we end up there? It’s an interesting tale.

WEDNESDAY’S Photo Essay POST: We’ll visit the ancient city of Pompeii in Italy that was buried by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.

FRIDAY’S Blog-a-Book POST: There’s some catching up on the education front. I’m allowed back in school and try to take over the first grade.



Nancy Jo and the Graveyard Ghost… Blogging a Book

A photo of Nancy, Marshall and me somewhere around the time of the Graveyard Ghost. I’m on the left and my dog Tickle is next to me.


This is one of my Halloween favorites that I post every few years. Since it fits here in my blogged book on “MisAdventures,” I’m posting it again. 

My sister was seven years older than I and lived on a different planet, the mysterious world of teenage girls. Her concern about ghosts makes this story a powerful testimony to teenage hormones. If Marshall and I had a healthy respect for the Graveyard at night, Nancy’s fear bordered on monumental.

This story begins with Nancy falling in ‘love’ with the ‘boy’ next door, Johnny. His parents were good folks from a kid’s perspective. Marshall and I raided their apple trees with impunity, and Mama, a big Italian lady, made great spaghetti that included wild mushrooms. I was fascinated with the way she yelled “Bullll Sheeeet” in a community-wide voice when she was whipping Papa into line. He was a skinny, Old Country type of guy who thought he should be in charge.

I use the terms love and boy somewhat loosely since Nancy at 16 was a little young for love and Johnny, a 22-year-old Korean War Veteran, was a little old for the boy designation, not to mention Nancy. Our parents were not happy, a fact that only seemed to encourage my sister.

Her teenage hormones aided by a healthy dose of rebellion overcame her good sense and she pursued the budding relationship. Johnny didn’t make it easy. His idea of a special date was to drive down the alley and honk. Otherwise, he avoided our place. If Nancy wanted to see him, she had to visit his home. It should have been easy; his house was right behind ours.

But there was a major obstacle, the dreaded Graveyard. To avoid it, Nancy had to climb over the fence that separated our houses or walk up the alley past the Graveyard. Given her feelings about dead people, the solution seemed easy— climb the fence. Marsh and I had been over it many times in search of apples. Something about teenage girl dignity I didn’t understand eliminated fence climbing, however. Nancy was left up the alley without an escort.

While she wasn’t above sneaking out her window, Nancy asked permission to see Johnny the night of the Graveyard Ghost attack. She approached Mother around seven. It was one of those warm summer evenings where the sun is reluctant to go down and boys are granted special permission to stay up. Marshall and I listened intently.

“Mother, I think I’ll go visit Johnny,” Nancy stated and asked in the same sentence. Careful maneuvering was required. An outright statement would have triggered a parental prerogative no and an outright question may have solicited a parental concern no.

Silence. This communicated disapproval, a possible no, and a tad of punishment for raising the issue.

“Mother?” We were on the edge of an impending teenage tantrum. Nancy could throw a good one.

“Okay” with weary resignation followed by, “but you have to be home by ten.”

What we heard was TEN. Translate after dark. Nancy would be coming down the alley past the Graveyard in the dark and she would be scared. Knowing Johnny’s desire to avoid my parents, we figured she would also be alone. A fiendish plot was hatched.

At 9:45 Marsh and I slipped outside and made our way up the alley to a point half way between our house and Johnny’s. Next we took a few steps into Graveyard where weed-like Heavenly Trees and deep Myrtle provided perfect cover. Hiding there at night was scary, but Marshall and I were operating under inspiration. Marsh stripped the limbs off of one of the young trees, bent it over like a catapult, and draped his white T-shirt on the trunk. We then scrunched down and waited.

At exactly 10:00, Nancy opened the back door and stepped outside with Johnny. Our hearts skipped a beat. Would he walk her home? No. After a perfunctory goodnight, Johnny dutifully went back inside and one very alone sister began her hesitant but fateful walk down the alley.

She approached slowly, desperately looking the other direction to avoid seeing tombstones and keeping as far from the Graveyard as the alley and fence allowed. At exactly the right moment, we struck. Marshall let go of the T-shirt and the supple Heavenly Tree whipped it into the air. It arched up over the alley and floated down in front of our already frightened sister. We started woooooing wildly like the eight and eleven-year-old ghosts we were supposed to be.

Did Nancy streak down the alley to the safety of the House? No. Did she figure out her two little brothers were playing a trick and commit murder? No. Absolute hysteria ensued. She stood still and screamed. She was feet stuck to the ground petrified except for her lungs and mouth; they worked fine.

As her voice hit opera pitch, we realized that our prank was not going as planned. Nancy was not having fun. We leapt out to remedy the problem.

Bad idea.

Two bodies hurtling at you out of a graveyard in the dark of night is not a recommended solution for frayed nerves and an intense fear of dead people. The three of us, Nancy bawling and Marshall and I worrying about consequences, proceeded to the house. As I recall, our parents were not impressed with our concept of evening entertainment. I suspect they laughed after we went to bed. Sixty years later, Nancy, Marshall and I still are.

MONDAY’S POST: Join Peggy and me as we begin a raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: Back to Sedona’s red rock country for another Wednesday photo essay…

FRIDAY’S POST: The Great Tree Race… My brother and I face off in a race up the Graveyard’s 70-foot tall cedar tree.



The Banning of the Animal Kingdom from My Bed… Blogging the MisAdventures Book


Big feet and army cot

A few years after the animals had been banned from my bed, I still had the old army cot, and bigger feet. I am reading a Western… serious literature.


In my last post, I related how I had hired the family pets to sleep on my bed when I slept outside in the summer to scare the ghosts away that lived in the Graveyard next to our house. Ir worked, but I had grown older and bigger. The pets were becoming more of a problem than the ghosts…

The night of the skunk was an exception to Pat’s normal stay-at-home routine. As usual, I had crawled into bed with an assortment of animals. That evening, it was minus Pat. Good, she took up a lot of room. Somewhere around midnight I half way woke as she hopped up on the bed, completed three dog turns and snuggled down. Consciousness made a quantum leap as my nose was assailed by an unmistakable perfume.

“Seems we have a skunk visiting,” I told Pat and reached down to scratch her head. The fur was moist. As I pulled my hand back, the skunk suddenly got much closer! Now, I was totally awake. Ms. Greyhound had been bullying the wrong pussy cat. It was a night to sleep inside. In fact, Marshall had a roommate for several days. I don’t know how many times I washed that hand but I do know that the bedding was tossed and Pat learned what a tomato juice bath was. When I finally made it back outside, the animals were put on notice, one more problem and off they went.

Then Demon made her contribution.

She was well into middle age by this time and there had been no pause in kitten production. Every few months she shelled out another litter. She had long since finished overpopulating Diamond and was working on surrounding communities. We were teetering on becoming known as the Cat Family of Diamond Springs.  She started hiding her kittens and became a master at subterfuge. If someone tried to follow her, she would stop and nonchalantly give herself a bath, her whole body, one lick at a time. Then she would wander off in the opposite direction.

Mother paid me in cookies to track Demon down. When the Graveyard was her destination, I had a flat tombstone I would stand on as a lookout. There was an added advantage; Demon didn’t check for people perched on tombstones. Who would? Eventually, the missing litter would be discovered. I felt like Daniel Boone.

Demon’s special home delivery took place the same summer Pat had her close encounter with the skunk. As noted earlier, my attitude about bed companions had become testy. I wasn’t above rolling over quickly to see how many I could dislodge. A really good roll would net three or four. Sleeping with me was like living on the San Andreas Fault.

I did feel guilt over routing Demon. Once again she was pregnant. I watched her balloon out. By this time, I was a veteran of the birthing process and found it interesting rather than troublesome. One night I had awakened to Pat howling, found that she was delivering puppies, and sat up with her through the process. Another time I had gone out with Tom Murphy, our grocer, and assisted in the delivery of a calf that wanted to come out the wrong way. It was messy, up to the elbow work. I really didn’t expect to be around for the arrival of Demon’s kittens. That would take place in some hidden nook. One should never make assumptions.

It started as a normal night. Roll over, kick off the animals, and go to sleep. Wake up and repeat the process. It was not a normal morning; I woke up with wet feet.

“What the heck!” I exclaimed as I sat up quickly, dislodging Pat in the process. Demon looked innocently back at me from the foot of the bed. Okay, nothing suggested why my feet were wet. Then I noticed movement. Demon was not alone. Several little black clones were lined up for breakfast. Demon had delivered her litter on the bed and my feet were awash in afterbirth.

That did it.  My bed was not a home for wayward dogs who encountered the business end of skunks and it certainly wasn’t designed as a maternity ward for unwed cats. I bought a water pistol and initiated a campaign of terror. Any four-legged critter on the bed became fair game. The cats learned quickly; getting shot with a water pistol was not their idea of a proper bath. The dogs were more resistant. Usually it took several squirts and then I would get the look: big brown eyes accusing me of dark deeds. But I was tough and my canine companions eventually vacated the premises. As soon as I fell asleep, however, the whole menagerie, fleas and all, would quietly slip back up on the bed.


Hiring the Family Pets to Scare Away the Ghosts…

Curt Mekemson and pets

The Graveyard was just across the alley from our house. As usual, I am occupied with some of the our family pets.


Each summer I slept in our back yard. I would move out as soon as school was over and stay until school started, or longer if parents and weather permitted. At first I slept on the ground in a cheap cotton sleeping bag. The ground was hard, the nights cool, and the mosquitoes persistent, but these were minor drawbacks. I was free. If I had to pee, I’d climb out of bed and find the nearest bush. If I woke up thirsty, a convenient garden hose provided water. I would go to sleep watching the stars and listening to a giant bullfrog croak away in the ditch in front of our house. I would wake to cool morning air and chirping robins.

Life was good. And then it got better. The grandparents bought me a real bed— a wood framed, steel spring army cot complete with mattress.

Graveyard ghost

The thing about graveyards is that dead people are buried there. This seemingly innocent tombstone was once hidden among the heavenly trees that turned the Graveyard into a jungle. Except it wasn’t totally hidden. I could see it from our backyard at night. It was, um, ghostly.

My paradise was marred by one thing, the Graveyard. It was always there on the edge of my sight.  White tombstones glared at me. As hard as I would pretend, the cemetery and its frightful inhabitants would not go away. So, I developed an elaborate set of defenses. The simplest was to sleep facing the opposite direction or to hide under the covers, ostrich like. A more sophisticated approach was to locate the bed where I couldn’t see the Graveyard.  Our seasoned cars worked in a pinch, but they weren’t large enough. Bits and pieces of the Graveyard would creep around their sides, peek over their tops and slink under their bottoms. A trellis built by my father was much better. Its luxurious growth of honeysuckle created the perfect Graveyard screen. I set up a permanent residence behind it.

House next to graveyard

These were more tombstones I could see from our house, whose roof can be seen in the back of the photo.

But even the trellis wasn’t enough to calm my imagination. I decided to hire protection. It came in the form of various family pets. Their job was to chase the ghosts away. Payment was made by allowing them to sleep on my bed. Apparently, the scheme worked. At least no ghosts attacked me during the years I slept outside.

The downside was I didn’t have much room. Two dogs, three cats, and me on a one-person army cot constituted a menagerie, or a zoo, if you counted the fleas. It was difficult to move. At first, I was very careful not to disturb my sleeping companions. I became a circus contortionist frozen in place with body parts pointed in every direction. If this meant a restless night, so be it. It was a small price to pay for keeping the ghosts at bay.

Gradually, my attitude changed. I grew larger, the bed space shrank, and animals started sleeping on top of me. Meanwhile, the ghosts, who tend to hassle little people more than they do big people, became less a threat. Therefore, I needed less protection. Neither of these factors led to the final banning of the animal kingdom, however. It was the shameless shenanigans of Demon and Pat.

Demon, the alpha family cat, was as black as the darkest night. As such, she was appropriately named and attired for graveyard duty. In fact, she spent a good deal of her life there stalking mice, lizards, birds and anything else she could get her claws into with impunity. Captured prey would then be brought home for approval. My job was to dispose of the half-eaten carcasses. Depopulating the Graveyard was not Demon’s claim to fame, however; motherhood was. She had kittens often and everywhere. I suspect that half of the cats living in El Dorado County today can trace their lineage back to her.

Two instances of kitten production bring back vivid memories. The first took place on the living room floor. Demon was a young cat at that time and a neophyte at motherhood. Her impending delivery was quite apparent from her large belly and ceaseless exploration of clothes hampers, cupboards and other dark places.

With high hopes of avoiding a misplaced litter of kittens, Mother arranged her bedroom closet as a maternity ward. Several times each day it was my duty to show Demon her new home. I would carefully pick up the very pregnant cat, carry her to the closet, and deposit her in a box filled with well-used clothes. Demon didn’t buy the program.  It seems my bedside manner was faulty. She would climb out of the box, give me a glare, and stalk out of the bedroom.

When the joyous day finally arrived, I was home alone.  Demon was practicing her would-be mother waddle walk across the living room when she suddenly stopped, squawked and squatted. Neither she nor I was ready for what followed. After all, how prepared can a young kid and a first-time mother be for birth? In a massive surprise to both of us, a tiny black bundle of fur emerged from Demon’s undercarriage. Surging emotions paralyzed my seven-year old mind. One thought stood out, the closet! If Demon hadn’t memorized her delivery lessons, I had.

I jumped across the room, grabbed Demon by the nape of the neck, and raced for Mother’s bedroom. As fast as I ran, it wasn’t fast enough. In the middle of the kitchen the new arrival completed its journey and was heading for a crash landing. Somewhere, somehow between Demon and the floor, I caught a warm, wet ball of fur in my free hand. After that, the memory fades. I know the three of us made it to the closet. Demon accepted her new home and four more kittens followed the first, although in a less dramatic way. The population explosion was underway.

We have to fast-forward several years to Demon’s next memorable delivery. This one was outside and led to the bed-pet-ban. But first I need to relay how Pat the Greyhound set the stage. She joined our family as a stray. For weeks, Mother had watched this large, starving dog wander the countryside and survive by catching rabbits and squirrels. One day she stopped the car, opened the door and invited Pat home for a meal.

Pat the Greyhound

Pat looking regal.

“Oh, it is just until she gains a little weight,” Mother explained to one very disgruntled Pop. Later it became, “Oh, but it would break Curt’s heart if we had to give her away.” Mother was a master at manipulation. Pat, who I named after the local Greyhound bus driver, had found a home. Like all of our pets, she lived outside. It was Pop’s rule; pets were limited to daytime visitation rights only. The pregnant Demon had been an exception imposed by Mother. Since there were no leash laws, Pat was free to come and go as she pleased. Mainly she chose to hang around with her food dish in sight. For a dog that had lived out in the wild, she had impeccable manners. Thus I was surprised when she joined Demon in abusing her bed rights, but that’s a tale for next Friday’s post…

MONDAY’S POST: It’s back to the central coast of Washington where global warming makes a point

WEDNESDAY’S POST: A photographic essay on Scotland

FRIDAY’S POST: The animal kingdom is banned from my bed


Boston: A Cradle of Liberty Where Freedom Still Rings Out

Boston's Old State House has been a symbol of American liberty for over 300 years.

The Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians in 1776 from the balcony of the Old State House (shown at night above). John Adam’s bright and articulate wife, Abigail, wrote to her husband that as soon as the Declaration was read… “three cheers rended the air.” She went on to report, “Thus ends the royal authority in this state.”

A fierce desire for independence and freedom has existed in Boston dating back to its very beginning in 1630 when the city was granted a charter to self-govern. Britain’s decision to limit the city’s freedom and tax its citizens starting in the 1760s led to protests that ended in the Revolutionary War and American independence. Beginning in the early 1800s, a strong abolitionist movement opposing slavery grew up in the Boston that would play a key role in leading to the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. When Peggy and I visited the city in December, we were able to visit a number of sites that reflected Boston’s historical contributions to liberty in America, but we also found ample evidence that the call to freedom still rings out in the city.

My experience in Boston combined with the fact that Donald Trump will be inaugurated as President this week led me to ponder some the most powerful statements that underlie our nation’s commitment to freedom and equality. Here are my favorites:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —US Declaration of Independence

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. —Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. —The First Amendment of the US Constitution

Slightly different but reflecting America’s original openness to immigration, and I might note, recognizing that we are a nation built by and with immigrants…

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! —Quote on America’s Statue of Liberty

These are words of wisdom from the folks who “made America great,” and have inspired generations of people in the U.S. and around the world. It is my hope that our new president will take these words to heart  in his efforts to “make America great again.”


Neither Peggy nor I had been to Boston before, which is a bit surprising considering the importance of Boston to the nation’s history— and to my own. My Great Grandfather to the umpteenth on my mother’s side arrived there in early 1630s from England, when the city was founded. Ultimately, we are all immigrants.

Boston Commons plaque that commemorates the founding of Boston, Massachusetts in 1630.

This plaque located on Boston Commons commemorates the founding of Boston in 1630. My Great Grandfather to the umpteenth is helping pull the boat in. (Just kidding.)

It was ‘love at first sight’ when we arrived. I had managed to find us an affordable hotel in the center of the city. Most of Revolutionary Boston was within walking distance and I am a big fan of Revolutionary War history. The red brick Freedom Trail was a short 10 minutes away. “Just follow the yellow brick road” was bouncing around in my mind. Instead of skipping off to Oz on yellow bricks with encouragement from Munchkins, however, the red bricks of the Freedom Trail connected us with many historical sites central to America’s struggles for freedom and equality.

Today, I want to share some of the things we saw in Boston that seem particularly relevant to this week in American history. Next Monday, I’ll be more focused on Boston’s Revolutionary history.

The Tremont Temple in Boston, Massachusetts.

I photographed the Tremont Temple because I thought it was a unique building…

Tremont Baptist Church was the first integrated church in America.

Not having a clue that it was a Baptist Church, or that it was the first integrated church in the U.S. It is a fitting photo to commemorate the week of Martin Luther King’s birthday.

I normally wouldn't take a photo of a Chipotle Restaurant, but this one happens to locate in the Old North Bookstore Building where Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published, which was both a classic of the Abolition Movement and a key factor in leading to the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves.

I normally wouldn’t take a photo of a Chipotle Restaurant, but this one happens to be located in the Old North Bookstore Building where Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published. The book was both a classic of the Abolition Movement and a key factor in leading to the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves.

Historic Faneuil Hall located in Boston, Massachusetts

Faneuil Hall is located just across the street from the Old State House. It was from this building that the fateful words were uttered, “No Taxation without representation.”  Maybe today’s declaration would be focused on the ultra-wealthy and declare “No representation without paying your fair share of taxes.” (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

We found this Gatling Gun in the military museum on the third floor of Faneuil Hall. While it may seem strange to include it here, it's inventor, Richard Gatling, believed that by employing increasingly deadly weapons that the size of armies could be reduced and that deaths due to combat and disease could be reduced as well. History has taught us a much different lesson, one that should be considered in any discussion of renewing the nuclear arms race.

We found this Gatling Gun in the military museum on the third floor of Faneuil Hall. While it may seem strange to include it here, the inventor, Richard Gatling, believed that by employing increasingly deadly weapons, the size of armies could be reduced and deaths due to combat and disease could be lowered. He also believed it would show us the futility of war. History has taught us a much different lesson. Millions upon millions have died because of the ever-increasing sophistication of weapons. And now our new president is talking about renewing the nuclear arms race…

This plaque on School Street notes where the Latin School stood. Founded on April 23, 1635, it is the oldest public school house in America. People such as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams and John Hancock attend the school. Public education in America may become a thing of the past under Betsy DeVos, his new Secretary of Education, who will gut public schools in favor of private schools whose motivation is either profit or the promotion of a particular belief system,.

This plaque on School Street notes where the Latin School stood. Founded on April 23, 1635, it was the first public school in America. People such as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams and John Hancock attended the school. Public education in America may become a thing of the past under Betsy DeVos, Trump’s new Secretary of Education, who’s proposed voucher system will gut public schools in favor of private schools whose primary motivation is profit or promoting a particular belief system. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Peggy and I wondered what the significance of theses rocks were when we were on our walk. The we come on the plaque featured below.

Peggy and I wondered what the significance of theses rocks were we found on our walk. Then we came upon the plaque featured below.

The Boston Peace Garden.

The Boston Peace Garden.

Peggy and I walked over to Newbury Street where the New England Genealogical Society is located. Along the way we came across the very impressive First Church of the Covenant that has long been a leader in promoting social justice.

We walked over to Newbury Street where the New England Genealogical Society is located. Along the way we came across the very impressive First Church of the Covenant that has long been a leader in promoting social justice.

This banner was stretched above its door...

This banner was stretched above its door…

Peggy and I found these T-shirts featured in Boston's Old State House where freedom still rings.

Peggy and I found these T-shirts featured in Boston’s Old State House.We decided that they would serve as an appropriate conclusion to this blog.

NEXT BLOG: Back to the Sierra Trek




A Trip to the Cannabis Fair? What??? No Way!

I didn't expect to find George at the fair.

I didn’t know what type of things I would find at the Cannabis Fair, but a painting of George standing in the middle of a marijuana farm and glowing green wasn’t one of them.


Occasionally, I slip in a blog that is outside of my 10,000-mile bicycle trek series. Today we are going to a cannabis fair…

So here I was on Saturday morning, staring out our windows at the mountains, listening to the morning news on TV, and wondering what I was going to do with my day. Peggy was back East playing with the kids and grandkids. I had just put up my post on the Scopes Trial, responded to all my comments, and checked in on the people I follow. I was actually caught up on blogging, a rare occasion— as most of you bloggers will recognize.

The weather person was predicting a 110° F degree-day. Playing or working outside wasn’t an option and I had completed most of my indoor chores. In fact, I had just pushed Robota’s button (Robota is our iRobot vacuum cleaner), and she was charging around, sucking up dirt, and cleaning rugs and floors. She’d return to her dock and plug-in when she needed recharging. I do wish she would learn to clean out her dirt bin, though. It’s such a bother; I could use the two minutes for something else… (Grin)

In other words, I had time on my hands. What’s a fellow to do? That’s when the local television anchor announced that the Cannabis Fair was being held at the Jackson County Fairgrounds in the main exhibit hall. Now I love fairs, and I have been seriously deprived this year (if you don’t count the Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage, Alaska and the International Ice Carving contest in Fairbanks). We missed the local Jackson County Fair because we had to go to Sacramento and arrived in Sacramento just as the California State Fair ended. To top off this tale of woe, I am taking a break from Burning Man.

But go to the Cannabis Fair and blog about it? No way! What would people think? And then I thought, why not. Marijuana is now legal in Oregon. In fact, I voted for the measure to legalize it. The majority of Americans support the idea. Why? One reason is that prohibition doesn’t work; it never has. Look at what happened with alcohol in the 1920s. If people wanted a drink, they found it. The main result of the Prohibition was the creation of the American Mafia. The Mob Museum in Las Vegas provides an excellent history of how it happened.

A similar thing happened with marijuana. Smoking a joint in the 1950s could lead to a 10-year prison sentence and a fine of $20,000— for a first time offender. Did this stop marijuana use? Remember the 60s? I do, vaguely (kidding). Our demand for marijuana, combined with laws against cultivation, led to its illegal production. What a surprise. Millions, and even billions of dollars were to be made. Drug cartels sprang up like weeds outside of the US to supply us. Tragically, thousands have been killed and whole political systems corrupted as a result. Here, billions of tax dollars (that is your money and mine) have gone into creating large government agencies that haven’t made a dent in the flow of pot.

Maybe the billions we spent on trying to suppress marijuana would be worth it, if the drug were the devil it was portrayed to be in Reefer Madness and other such anti-pot campaigns. But the truth is— it isn’t. The negative physical and social impacts are no worse than alcohol, and may indeed be less. A growing body of evidence suggests that a number medical benefits derive from cannabis. Contrast this with the health effects of tobacco. Numerous states have passed laws making medical marijuana use legal. And several have now made it legal for recreational use as well.

Cloth hanging art found at the Cannabis Fair in Jacksonville County, Oregon.

I am not sure what the artist had in mind with this cloth hanging I found at the Fair, but I thought it provided a good perspective on how people view the effects of marijuana. On the left is the perspective of the cannabis industry, the pro-legalization forces and most users. On the right is how those who support the Reefer Madness point of view see it.

But it’s time to climb down off my soapbox (sort of). We have a fair to go to! I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to find. Let me start with noting there were no pigs, or goats, or bunny rabbits— the usual reasons I go to a fair. This was a serious endeavor. Pot growing is big business for small farms in my neck of the woods. Six are visible along the 30-mile road between where I live on the Applegate River and Medford. They hardly blend in.

The law requires that marijuana farmers put their crops behind 8-foot fences if they are located within 150 feet of the highway, supposedly to protect children from seeing them. Instead the fences serve as huge billboards that scream: WE GROW POT! If you can find a six-year-old in Jackson County that doesn’t know what is happening behind those fences, I’d be surprised. And you can bet they are much more intrigued by the hidden marijuana than they would be if the plants were simply grown out in the open like any other crop. Plus the fences are butt-ugly.

Marijuana farms that are visible from the road in Oregon, are required to be surrounded by 8-foot fences.

This fence, legally required by Oregon law to conceal a cannabis farm, is about a mile away from my house.

I wandered around from booth to booth at the fair, taking photos for my blog (after asking permission) and chatting with folks tending the booths. There was potting soil and pot pots. There were salves and seeds. There were lawyers and accountants and security specialists and equipment sales people. One man was offering a bud trimmer for $300 that looked like a combination of an electric razor and a mini-hedge trimmer. He provided a demonstration. Bzzzzzz! I could picture him at a cannabis shop saying, “This Bud’s for you.”

Pots for growing marijuana on display at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

I couldn’t help but think pot pots when I saw these. And please note: they are made in the USA.

And of course you need potting soil for pot pots.

And of course you need premium potting soil for pot pots. What better than Cloud 9, Zen Blend, and Gaia’s Gift?

And you have to decide what type of cannabis you are going to plant. There are literally hundreds of string that have been developed, all with different strengths, and if you accept the literature, different qualities.

And you have to decide what type of cannabis you are going to plant. There are literally hundreds of strains that have been developed, all with different strengths, and, if you accept the literature, qualities.I wonder which one will give me an irresistible craving for ice cream?

In addition to all of the services available for growers at the Cannabis Fair, there were also items for consumers, such as this magical butter makers. Grind up your cannabis, drop it in the pot, add butter, simmer for an hour, strain the results, and you are ready to make cookies!

In addition to all of the services available for growers at the Cannabis Fair, there were also items for consumers, such as these magical butter pots. Grind up your cannabis, drop it in the pot, add butter, simmer for an hour, strain, and you are ready to make cookies!

I wandered into a dome tent set up by Pacific Domes. It reminded me of the structures at Burning Man. Even some of the wall hangings seemed familiar. And there was the painting of George Washington enjoying a pipe I featured at the top of the blog. Robert, the account executive, told me that a lot of their tents do make it to Burning Man. I asked him how they handled the windstorms. “They are designed to withstand gusts up to 8o miles per hour,” he told me.

A dome tent from the Pacific Dome company on display at Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

Both domed tents and greenhouses were promoted at the fair for growing marijuana.

Dome tent for growing cannabis at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

The tent was appropriately camouflaged.

Cannabis art found at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

The wall hangings in the tent reminded me very much of Burning Man, although you don’t flaunt marijuana use in Black Rock City. The event is crawling with law enforcement people happy to bust you.

All types of pipes were available for smoking, some even glowed in the dark under a black light. The folks at Bayshore Smoking Glass from Coos Bay broke out several for me to photograph. Some of the pipes were quite attractive, and some were downright funny. How would you like your pot pipe to look like an octopus?

Cannabis pipes for smoking marijuana found at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

I found the variety of pipes fun. What can I say. An incredible amount of creativity goes in to producing them.

A variety of pipes for smoking marijuana at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

They come in all shapes, sizes and colors.

This one even glowed when placed under a black light.

This one even glowed in the dark.

"Living the Pipe Dreams" cannabis pipes on display at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

Dianne told me I could photograph her art work if I put her card in the picture.

Bongs for smoking cannabis at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

I also found these bongs, or water pipes, rather unique.

Maybe you aren’t into smoking but still want to indulge. Then there are edibles, or medibles for medical marijuana. I stopped by a booth featuring Mary Lou’s Edibles and talked with Mary Lou. She had some delicious looking peanut butter cookies on display. “Are these samples?” I asked. (While no marijuana was for sale at the fair, some booths were offering free samples that you were required to take off of the premises before consuming.) “No,” she said, “but you can go online and order them.” She handed me her card. It announced, “Made with Oregon Cannabis and Love by the Happy Granny.” I’ll bet she is.

The rules were quite clear about not consuming marijuana at the Fair.

The rules were quite clear about not consuming marijuana at the Fair. Oregon state law prohibits consumption in public areas.

Kettle Corn anyone?

Kettle Corn anyone? A number of booths had edibles on display. They ranged from kettle corn, to chocolate, to cookies, to brownies and candy. An important issue is keeping these products away from children.

Mimim's medical marijuana being displayed at the Cannais Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

When edibles are used for medical purposes, they are called ‘medibles.’ I share a concern with the cannabis industry that the pharmaceutical industry will step in, patent medicines, and charge a hundred times more for medical marijuana than people presently pay. I feel the same way about agribusiness stepping in and wiping out the thousands of small farms that now grow cannabis.

A series of lectures were being offered and I stopped by to listen to one being given by Pioneer Pete Gendron. Pete represents Oregon’s marijuana growers on the state level. I am assuming that his pioneer status comes from being one of Oregon’s original pot growers. He certainly looks the part. He is also a highly intelligent and articulate man. He talked about cannabis politics in Oregon. I learned the reason behind the 8-foot fences from him. I also learned that marijuana isn’t quite the water hog it is claimed to be. Alfalfa requires seven times as much water to grow.

Pioneer Pete was one of a number of people who made presentations at the Cannabis Fair on the various aspects of marijuana farming.

Pioneer Pete Gendron was one of a number of people who made presentations at the Cannabis Fair on the various aspects of marijuana farming and consumption.

Today, the Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA, continues to label marijuana as a class-1 drug, on par with heroin. Pete told us that when the cannabis industry requested an opportunity to prove it didn’t belong at that level, the DEA said, “We can’t do that. It is a class-1 drug,” i.e. it is illegal to use so any evidence you gather using it is illegal. Makes complete sense, right. Have you ever read Joseph Heller’s Catch 22?

The times they are a-changing, however. Cannabis plants will join carrots and cabbages at this year’s Oregon State Fair. How much more mainstream can you go? California will vote on legalization for recreational use this fall. On the national level, the Democratic Platform includes a plank that would push for legalization nation-wide. It is only a matter of time.

That’s it for the break! It’s back to bicycling in my next blog. We have a mountain range to climb over: the Great Smokies!

Escape from Alaska… Part II: The Friday Essay

Woodland buffalo have become fairly common when driving through portions of the Yukon Territory. As noted in my last Escape from Alaska blog, Peggy and I took these photos two years ago when we drove the Alaska Highway in the summer.

Woodland buffalo like this guy have become fairly common when driving through portions of the Yukon Territory. As noted in my last Alaska blog, Peggy and I took these photos two years ago when we drove the Alaska Highway in the summer.

The next day after my encounter with the Trooper (see here), I zipped down the Alaska Highway through the Yukon Territory to White Horse. With the exception of gigantic trucks on their way to the North Slope, I saw few other vehicles. Snow still covered the surrounding wilderness and the road was frozen solid. The annual migration of tourists traveling north was months away.

That night I chose to stay in a campground, preferring not to repeat my previous night’s experience. I also avoided wasting away in Margaritaville— instead I broke out the brownies.

As a going away present, some friends had given me a gallon Zip Lock bag of Alaska’s finest pot. At first sight, it might seem that they were involved in a criminal activity, but marijuana was legal in Alaska. You could grow your own and somebody had obviously grown a lot. Giving me the grass had been the Alaskan equivalent of sending me off with a bottle of 25-year-old single malt Scotch whiskey, or several bottles.

In honor of lung health, I promised not to smoke it. I practiced my baking techniques on my last night at my friend’s house. The cat, the two dogs and I tested the results. It was a mellow evening and the whole menagerie was allowed to sleep on the bed. We purred, wagged our tails, and had wild dreams.

Here’s some advice to the uninitiated that Alice B. Toklas didn’t provide: go easy on brownies. They have a way of sneaking up on you. The problem is physiological. Long before your body has done its job and processed the herb, you are thinking, ‘this stuff has absolutely zero impact, I should have stuck with wine.’ So you eat another brownie, and then another. By the time you realize the error of your ways, it’s too late and you are wacko.

Luckily, I had already been there, done that. I ate a small piece and waited patiently. Then I broke out an ounce of Swiss cheese. I was all moderation. Marijuana enhances flavor and encourages gluttony. I once watched a woman down a quart of ice cream in one sitting and demand more.

A friend had slipped me a fat letter to read on the way. I opened it as an option to eating the other 15 ounces of cheese. She had offered to pinch hit if my other Alaska relationship didn’t work out.

“We can run off to Mexico and open an orphanage for homeless children, Curt,” she had suggested. She was serious about the orphanage. It was a dream of hers. It made the suggestion of my staying home, writing, and raising one or two kids look like a ride on a merry-go-round. I had declined her generous proposal. The gist of the letter was that the offer was still open.

Sights along the the Alaska Highway include towering mountains...

Sights along the Alaska Highway include towering mountains…

Wild rivers...

Wild rivers…

Reflecting lakes...

Reflecting lakes…

And Dall Sheep...

And Dall Sheep…

Including this ram...

Including this ram…

And this curious kid.

And this curious kid.

Five days later I drove into Sacramento. The grass was green and flowers were blooming even though a major flood had threatened the region in February. I planned on spending a few days visiting my father and some friends before taking off for the woods. As part of my itinerary I stopped by to see Jane Hagedorn at the Sacramento Lung Association. Jane is a fierce friend. Every time I had tried to escape, she had reeled me back in, frustrating my desire to become a happy wanderer by making me offers I couldn’t refuse.

I found my green grass in Sacramento.

I found my green grass in Sacramento.

And California Poppies, plus two job offers.

And California Poppies— plus two job offers.

“You will come back to Sacramento and work for Lung when you are done playing,” she informed me and then dangled the Trek Program in front of me for bait. As I usually do, I tentatively agreed. It’s not wise to cross Jane. As I was leaving the Lung Building, I ran into Jerry Meral, the Executive Director of the Planning and Conservation League of California. Along with the Sierra Club, PCL is the main lobbying group for environmental groups in California.

“Curt,” Jerry said with his always-high level of enthusiasm, “I have a job for you.”

“I’m not looking for a job, Jerry,” had been my reply. “I am going backpacking for six months.”

Jerry, who is even worse than Jane at taking no for an answer, continued on, “But this job is perfect for you. I want you to work on raising California’s tobacco tax by five cents so we can use the money for buying parks.” I knew that Jerry and his crew at PCL had successfully done more at raising money for parks than anyone else in California and probably the world. If Jerry was behind the concept, it was legitimate.

“Interesting Jerry, but I am going backpacking.” I figured that took care of it.

“OK and have fun,” said Jerry, “but see me as soon as you get back.”

I half nodded my head in agreement. So here I was, desperate to free myself from any major commitments, and already agreeing to think about taking on two significant tasks— one that was monumental. But they could wait. The next day, I was on my way to the Grand Canyon. And who knew what I would be doing in six months.

NEXT BLOG: The wilderness cure begins. It’s off to backpack the Grand Canyon via Death Valley and Las Vegas.


Quirky Berkeley— I Return to My Roots


Sproul Hall

Sproul Hall, the administrative center of UC Berkeley, looks imposing. It comes with a welcome sign now but it wasn’t so welcoming when I gave a speech while standing on the Dean’s desk at the height of the Free Speech Movement in 1964.

Last week went on forever. By Sunday, the events at the beginning of the week seemed like ancient history. Maybe that’s not a bad thing; time slowed down. Lately it’s been zipping by like a hummingbird on sugar-water. Zoooooooom!

I began my week by being a guest lecturer in a writing class at Southern Oregon University where I talked about changes in the publishing industry. Mainly I discussed how authors are now responsible for marketing their own books. Grump. It is not my favorite activity. “Go start a blog,” I urged, “at least you can have fun. And it is great writing practice.”

Thursday found me keynoting an author’s day at a local community school. I had jumped from talking with seniors in college to kids. And how in the heck do you tailor a talk for a group with an age range from 7-14? Tell stories, I decided— and started with the tale from The Bush Devil Ate Sam about Rasputin the Cat and the Cockle Doodle Rooster. Afterwards I taught classes of fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders. My message was that we are all storytellers.

It was fun. The eight-hour drive to Berkeley immediately afterward wasn’t.

I drove down to attend a national conference of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. I was one pooped pup when I arrived. It was lights out for Curt. I hardly even needed my noisemaker to drown out the clamor on University Avenue.

Berkeley is many things, among them a world renown center of education.

Speaking of tired puppies, I found these hemp collars and leashes on Telegraph Avenue. In addition to being home to one of the world’s greatest educational institutions, Berkeley can be a bit quirky.

I went to the conference to participate in some workshops relating to Peace Corps writers, of which there are legions. I also wanted to hear presentations by Congressman Sam Farr and Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. Sam had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in South America in the 60s and, like me, worked in Peace Corps recruiting afterwards. He is known as “Mr. Peace Corps” in Congress for the strong advocacy role he plays for the organization.

He argued that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers also needed to become advocates. It’s budget time in Washington, and there are a lot more countries requesting Peace Corps Volunteers, and people who want to be Volunteers, than Peace Corps has money to fund. As usual, the money goes elsewhere. For example, we are spending a billion and a half dollars this year to keep Egypt happy— four times the total budget of Peace Corps.

On the good news side of the equation, Carrie announced that Peace Corps Volunteers would be back in Liberia this week. As you may recall, they were pulled out in the fall because of Ebola. Carrie also mentioned a major new initiative that Peace Corps is working on with Michelle Obama, Let Girls Learn. It is a worldwide effort to provide girls with the same education opportunities boys now have.


We listened to a pre-recorded message on Let Girls Learn from Michelle Obama in Wheeler Auditorium, which was the site of my first class at Berkeley. I had walked right by the classroom, incapable of imagining that there would be over a thousand students in the class. Berkeley gave me a new understanding of mass education.

I must confess— I also had an ulterior motive for the trip. Any journey to Berkeley is a trip into the past for me. I think of it as a pilgrimage, a return to my roots. I still hear echoes from the 60s when I was caught up in Berkley’s Free Speech Movement. This time the echoes were real. A resounding expletive caught my attention. I turned around to see Cliff Marks descending on me. Cliff and I had shared an apartment during out senior year and Cliff had also served in the Peace Corps. The last time I had seen or talked with him was at his wedding in 1969. We had a grand time catching up. Now it is time to catch up on the blogs I have missed this past week and a half.

But first, let’s go on a tour of Berkeley.

Sather Gate

Every student who has ever been to Berkeley passes through Sather Gate…


And at some point, stops to admire the Campanile, which is Berkeley’s best known landmark.

Bay Bridge

The campus looks out over San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the distance.

Steps of library

I had spent the day buried in the Bancroft Library and surfaced for a break when I found a young woman crying on these steps. The campus was deathly quiet. “What’s the problem?” I had asked. “They’ve shot the President,” she told me in a broken voice. It was November 23, 1963 and President Kennedy had been killed, shot down in the streets of Dallas.

Sproul Plaza

Sproul Plaza was a major location for student protests in the 60s. This entrance to the campus, at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Avenue, was the location of Berkeley’s Free Speech Area that the University arbitrarily closed down in the fall of 1964, thus leading to the beginning of the Free Speech Movement.

Ludwig's fountain

The Student Union and Ludwig’s Fountain are under renovation. Ludwig was a 60’s type dog who wandered wherever he chose. He came down from his house on the hill daily and frolicked in the fountain that would eventually bear his name. I petted Ludwig and watched as a police car was taken hostage and then used as a speaker’s podium. Jack Weinberg, a Civil Rights organizer, was being held in the car. It was Jack, now 75, who coined the phrase, “never trust anyone over 30.”

Cafe Mediterraneum

I learned as much outside of the classrooms as I did inside at Berkeley. The Cafe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue was my main hangout. It was one of America’s first European style Coffee Houses in the 1950s and proudly claims to be the creator of the caffe latte.


One of my primary forms of entertainment in the 60s at Berkeley was perusing bookstores. It still is today when I visit the city. Moe’s was and is one of the greats. Sadly, my favorite, Cody’s, is now closed.

Amoeba Records

Amoeba Records is next to the Cafe Meditteraneum. Street booths, like those in front on the left, have become a permanent  fixture along Telegraph Avenue.

Crystals on Telegraph

As one might expect, many of the items for sale have a New Age connection, such as these ‘healing’ quartz crystals.

Dream Catchers

And these dream catchers.

People's Park

“If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” –Ronald Reagan’s response as Governor of California to students who were protesting his closing down Berkeley’s People’s Park as a community garden in the late 60s. National Guard troops were sent in and local police were armed with shotguns loaded with buckshot. One student, apparently a bystander, was killed and another was blinded. The whole city was tear gassed from the air.

Tree sign

A sign thanking trees that live in the park today.


A mural on the side of the Amoeba record store depicts events surrounding People’s Park as well as other Telegraph Avenue happenings.


The mural.

Pan Handler

Berkeley has always been a mecca for young people,  both those seeking an alternative lifestyle as well as those seeking a first class education. Many who came looking for alternatives arrived without money, as this young man shown in the mural.


Today, Berkeley is the ‘home’ for numerous homeless people. I took this photo on Dwinelle Plaza on campus.

Street Spirit

This homeless man was selling the newspaper “Streetsmart” in front of Moe’s Bookstore. Headlines announced a recent protest that the community’s religious leaders including Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist representatives had made against the city’s efforts to criminalize homelessness as a means of driving homeless people out of town.

Berkeley sign board

A sign of the times? Not really. Berkeley’s sign boards have always been plastered with notices on top of notices. I was amused to find help wanted notices for Berkeley’s Call Center. I hear from these young people several times a year as they solicit money for Berkeley. I found it interesting that the University, who charges them $14,000 a year in tuition ($38,000 if out-of-state), only pays these kids $11 per hour.

South Hall

South Hall, built in 1873, is the oldest building on the UC Berkeley Campus. It’s an appropriate photo to end this post, and also to raise a question about the future of public education in America. Tuition was free when I went to Berkeley and I was able to pay for my living costs by driving a laundry truck in the summer. I graduated debt-free. Today’s young people graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. It’s close to tragic. All I can think of is how incredibly stupid our state and national leaders are when the future of our nation, and indeed the world, depends upon an educated and knowledgeable population. Germany can somehow find the money to provide a free college education. Why not America?






Speaking of Afterlife, Did Pop Actually Haunt Me?


One of my favorite photos of my father taken by Glen Fishback at his studio.

One of my favorite photos of my father taken by Glen Fishback at his studio.

Do you believe in ghosts? I’d like to say I don’t. Their existence isn’t rational. There is no scientific evidence that supports their presence. And yet, I’ve had a couple of ghostly experiences that are hard to explain rationally, other than my mind playing tricks (a distinct possibility). But consider the following:

In my last Friday essay on religion, I took readers to Alaska and a campfire discussion with my father. Pop lived for another eight years— and they were good years. He continued to read his Bible, smoke his pipe, paint pictures, and entertain the elderly women in his retirement complex with the photographs he had taken over the years. We had lots of opportunities to talk. I learned a great deal of his past and he never gave up trying to convert me.

Pop painted up until he was 85 or so.

Pop painted up until he was 85 or so. (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

The painting that Pop was working on now hangs in our guest bedroom.

The painting that Pop was working on now hangs in our guest bedroom.

One night I had him over for dinner to meet my new friend and future wife, Peggy. She charmed him as much as she had charmed me. I had already told him I planned on marrying her if I could persuade her to say yes. When I took him home, we shook hands at his doorway and, purely out of instinct, I said, “I love you Pop.” He got one of his big grins and responded, “I love you, too, Curt.”

A week later I found him sitting naked on his toilet, dead from a massive heart attack.

Of course I was grief-stricken. His passing was the passing of one of the most significant parts of my life. And I also felt guilt. I had known he wasn’t feeling well when I left him that night. I’d called a couple of times and he hadn’t answered, but I had assumed he had just been out on one of his walks. I couldn’t help but think if I had stopped by that I might have made a difference. Still, he had lived a full and productive life, taken care of himself to the end, and gone out quickly. It’s hard to ask for more.

The next day I went over to clean things up. I probably shouldn’t have gone alone because I was so stressed. I was in the bathroom cleaning when a light in the front room went on. I went out, thinking maybe the building manager had come by. No one was there. I went back to the bathroom where I had left a faucet on. Just as I walked in it jumped from a trickle to full force. The errant light and faucet shook me up; I grabbed my things and departed, quickly. That night I left the lights on in my apartment. It had been ages since I feared things that go bump in the night, but why take chances.

Just as I was finally drifting off to sleep from exhaustion, I heard a voice in my head. It was Pop. “I am alright Curt,” he said. “It’s okay.” And then I saw a vision of the proverbial white tunnel. It wasn’t a light at the end of the tunnel; it was the complete tunnel, the whole shebang— Pop’s spaceship. Were the light in his front room, the faucet, and the voice results of natural causes and my overwrought imagination? Probably. But who knows? Who knows what awaits us when the final bell rings? Maybe it’s a one-way ticket through the Universe.

Afterwards, when I thought about the experience, I was a little amused that Pop hadn’t taken advantage of the moment to say, “Read your Bible, Curt.” I would have started immediately. But maybe it wasn’t necessary. Maybe other fuel drove his spaceship.


In this series of essays, I have not argued against religion, I have argued against the abuse of religion. I have contended that the ‘leap of faith’ required by religions, combined with the concept of exclusivity (there is only one way to get to heaven), make abuse possible and even likely. Holding the keys to eternal life provides the holder with tremendous power. It’s something to die for. This power is an almost irresistible magnet to those who crave and need power for any number of reasons ranging from the sublime to the outrageous, from serving the flock to fleecing it, from helping the helpless to offing the opposition. When combined with fanaticism and government support, this mixture can quickly become a dangerous and deadly brew.

Religion has the power to do much good. I used my own personal example of how the Episcopal Church helped me get through difficult teenage years. I have a minister friend, the woman who married Peggy and me, who is known as the Disaster Pastor. She devotes her life to helping out where help is most needed, and has the full support of her congregation. My fellow blogger friend Bill, at Practicing Resurrection, is using his faith to encourage wholesome and humane farming practices, and healthy eating. Pope Francis is undertaking a major environmental initiative. There are thousands of examples.

To me, the greatest role religion can play is to enable us to see beyond ourselves, to understand that on some deep level we are all connected, not only to other human beings but to all life. Our salvation as a species lies in realizing that all of life is sacred and acting accordingly. Few of us have the capacity for sainthood but most of us have the capacity to see a bit further beyond ourselves than we normally do, and think through the long-term implications of our actions— whether it is being unkind, marching off to war, or wiping out another species.

I believe that the easiest way to counteract the negative aspects of religion is to modify the concept of exclusivity. Simply put, it’s okay for us to believe that the path we have chosen will take us toward whatever afterlife has to offer, but we also need to recognize that someone else’s path may be equally valid. Religious tolerance would eliminate one of the primary causes of conflict in the world today. Freedom of religion and separation of church and state are essential to obtaining this objective. Maybe the day will come when people of different religious beliefs (or none), can live next to each other in peace and prosperity throughout the world.

I’ll let Pop get a final word in. He once told me that he regarded his extensive reading of the Bible as an insurance policy. If he were right, it was his key to the afterlife. If he were wrong, what’s the harm? I granted him that. But I countered with the opposite argument. What if he were wrong? What if this is all we have? Then life becomes incredibly important. Each moment is precious. Yes, practice your religion if it is significant to you— read your Koran or Bible or Bhagavad Gita— but live each moment as though it were your last. Be kind, make sure that your loved ones know that you love them, give back to the community, have adventures, expand your mind, practice tolerance, and be passionate.  If there is more after the curtain falls, wonderful. If not, you have lived your life fully and can die knowing that you achieved everything humanly possible from your brief time on this earth. What’s the harm?

NEXT WEEK: Monday’s Blog: A neighborhood goat feast. You’ll meet a clothed Rambo and a naked Pinky. Wednesday’s Photo Essay: I return to the magical island of Santorini. Friday’s Essay: How twenty-five cents saved one million lives and $134 billion in health care costs. Part I.

The Earth Is 6000 Years Old… Or So My father Told Me

My father, Herb Mekemson. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

My father. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

I invited my father, Herb Mekemson, up to Alaska for his 80th birthday. My brother Marshall put him on the airplane in Sacramento and I met him in Anchorage. He got off the plane grinning. We shook hands and embraced. He still had a strong grip.

“Curt, have you been causing problems again?” he asked. These weren’t the first words out of his mouth but they were close. There was a twinkle in his eyes, sort of.

“What do you mean, Pop?” I asked in mock innocence. He was gripping his pipe like it was the last life raft on a sinking ship.

“I got off of the plane and the first thing they announced was I couldn’t light up in the airport. I’ve needed a smoke since I left Seattle.” I had been an advocate for smoke-free areas in Sacramento and continued my efforts in Alaska.

I laughed. He and I had been through the tobacco discussion dozens of times. We had it down to a routine. I’d point out there was a direct correlation between his smoking and the heavy cough he had in the morning. He’d note that he had been smoking for over 60 years and was still going strong, thank you. I’d observe that somewhere his Scotch Presbyterian mother was rolling over in her grave, and so it would go. He liked his tobacco straight up. For years he had smoked unfiltered Camels but they lacked the kick he needed. In his words, he had switched to ‘roll-your-owns’ as opposed to the ‘new fangled tailor mades.’ As a result, most of his shirts were aerated from burning tobacco. Out of self-defense, he had switched to a pipe. He liked to tease me that most of my efforts in the tobacco wars were designed to thwart him.

“Well, Pop,” I announced, “in honor of your visit, you have been granted special dispensation. You can smoke in my truck.” He hurried me out of the airport, barely taking time to pick up his suitcase.

Pop, as in "don't you even think of taking my pipe away from me. (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

Pop, as in, “Don’t you dare think of taking my pipe away from me.” (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

We had quite the adventure planned but first there were social responsibilities. I took him over to meet my roommates Cyndi and Roger. Cyndi owned the house and Roger and I paid rent. It was a good arrangement. Cyndi was a slope worker, which meant she worked for two weeks up on the North Slope in the oil industry and then had two weeks off. Roger was in the vending machine business, which included cigarettes. Surprisingly, the three of us were quite compatible.

When Cyndi and I first met to interview each other over possible roommate status, I mentioned that I was Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. She became quite excited and announced she had a Lung Association connection.

“I was a Trek leader in Minnesota before I came to Alaska,” she said. When I informed her that I had created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program, we decided that fate had brought us together. As for Roger, he and I had a penchant for weird movies, the weirder the better. Strange Brew is an excellent example. Many a winter evening was spent happily vegging on the couch, drinking beer, and watching videos.

Once Pop had visited my home, our next responsibility was visiting the ‘girlfriend.’ I had been dating a pulmonary physician and we hung out a lot together. I had an open invitation to move in.

“Why don’t we get married,” she suggested. “You can stay home, write, and raise the children.” I liked the staying home and writing idea but wasn’t ready for the kids and married part. Her English Spaniel had a different perspective. I kicked him off of the bed when I was around. His response was to pee on my side of the bed and mark it as his territory. I would have gone and peed on his bed if he had one. Two can play the dominant male species game.

My friend cooked dinner for Pop and me, which was a little scary. Cooking was not her forte. Our meal was good though and the dog was on its best behavior. We had a very pleasant evening.

Pop liked the idea of me getting married and having kids. He had always wanted me to produce grandchildren and both our biological time clocks were ticking. At 40 plus, I was rapidly approaching the point where having children was impractical. At 80, he was rapidly approaching the point where he would never see them. Actually, Pop had three wishes for me. The first was the married with children bit. The second was that I would become a photographer and take pictures of all the beautiful sites I saw in my wandering. The third was that I would become a good Christian boy and return to the flock.

A few years later I would fall in love, get married, inherit two great kids— and take up photography. I always figured that two out of three weren’t bad.

The next day we headed off to Denali. I had a permit for camping in the Park. Pop went crazy with his camera and the Alaskan scenery; we had to stop every 20 minutes or so for photo ops. Even a moose waited patiently beside the road to have its picture taken. By the time we reached camp, heavy black clouds were swirling overhead and a cold wind was reminding us that summer had yet to arrive. I hurried in setting up the large Coleman tent I had brought along while Pop, who insisted on being part of the action, went in search of firewood. A few minutes later I noticed that he had disappeared.

“Oh damn,” I thought to myself, “how do I explain to my sister and brother that Pop had become lost in the Alaskan wilderness gathering firewood.”

Then I spotted him off in the distance on top of a hill taking pictures.

“I saw some mountain goats up on the opposite mountain and I wanted to get closer for pictures,” he explained to me after descending.

“Do you know there are grizzly bears wandering around up there,” I said pointedly. He just smiled. At 80 he was ready to meet his maker. If it happened with the help of a grizzly bear, so be it. But it wasn’t going to happen on my shift, if I could help it.

After dinner we sat by our crackling campfire and talked for a couple of hours as snowflakes danced around the perimeter. Our family, his past and my future were all topics of discussion. There was something magical about the setting and Pop was obviously enjoying himself tremendously. Sitting in the Alaskan wilderness in the midst of a swirling snowstorm at age 80 was something that he had never envisioned for himself. I had him bundled from head to toe and he insisted he was toasty warm. Eventually the topic got around to one of his favorite subjects, religion.

“You know, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot,” he started. The Pearly Gates were beckoning and Pop wanted to be sure his credentials were in order. He was about to jump in to his ‘You should read the Bible too, Curt’ lecture. To forestall the inevitable, I asked a question out of curiosity.

“Assuming you make it to heaven, what do you think it is like?”

He laughed. “I am afraid my view’s a little unusual. I see myself as a spacecraft hurtling through space. I am not in the spacecraft. I am the spacecraft and I am exploring the universe and seeing all of the glorious sights it has to offer.” Apparently there would be no jewel encrusted buildings and streets paved with gold for him.

While I was contemplating this rather wondrous view of the after-life, I took too long in coming up with my next question.

“You should read the Bible too, Curt,” Pop began. “I’ve been listening to a radio minister and he is going through each Book in detail and explaining what it means. There’s a lot of great stuff. I’ve bought a complete set of his tapes.”

The radio minister part hoisted a red flag for me. Marshall and I had cut our religious eye teeth on a slippery southern radio preacher in the 1950s and I had recently been tuning in to Jim and Tammy Baker. They were prime time in Alaska. It was quite clear to me that they were bilking their flock and the process fascinated me. This didn’t mean that I believed all radio preachers or televangelists were frauds. It seemed reasonable to me that sincere religious people would want to take advantage of modern communication opportunities to share their views. Still, I decided to gently pursue where Pop’s radio minister was taking him.

“Um, what do you mean by great stuff?” I inquired.

“The stories, the history, the messages,” he replied enthusiastically, giving me a catalog to choose from. He was prepared to wax eloquently on the subject, to convert me on the spot. It wouldn’t be easy. I had read the Bible, and found it interesting, educational, and meaningful. But I wasn’t about to accept it as literal truth. I was curious as to where my father stood on the religious continuum between liberal interpretation and fundamentalist dogma. He had always been deeply religious but somewhat tolerant of other perspectives.

“So, Pop,” I queried, jumping to a litmus test of Christian fundamentalism, “do you believe that the world is 6,000 years old?”

“Yes,” was his simple reply and it was immediately clear where the radio minister was leading him: it was over the foaming falls of fundamentalism where a leap of faith assures a righteous landing. On one level this didn’t bother me. Life can be rather short and brutish as Hobbes noted, and full of suffering as the Zen Buddhists like to point out. We find our comfort where we can find it. If Pop’s belief helped him deal with the present and face his future, then it had value for him. Who was I to say otherwise? It wasn’t exactly like he was being misled, either. The Mekemson side of my family comes from a long line of true believers dating back to John Brown the Martyr of Scotland in the 1600s— and undoubtedly beyond.

I have my own share of spiritual genes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years considering different religious traditions and pondering imponderables. Crass materialism, in and of its self, seems to be a poor reason to exist. I tend to believe that there is a deep, underlying unity in the universe and that all of life on earth is connected. It’s hard to get much more mystical than that.

I was a little concerned that Pop had paid several hundred dollars for the tapes. He lived off of his Social Security pension and the amount represented a lot of money. Bilking came to mind. I was more concerned with the implications of his beliefs as we chatted into the night. It wasn’t enough that he believed the earth was 6000 years old. I, too, should believe it. School systems were wrong for teaching evolution and should be required to teach creationism. He also expressed a strong bias against homosexuality and gay people that he had picked up from the radio preacher. The latter made me particularly sad.

The best man at my first wedding and a friend from childhood, Frank Martin, was gay. When my mother was dying of cancer while I was at Berkeley, Frank would often stop by and visit her, bringing whatever comfort he could. Later, when my former wife and I returned from serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, Frank and his partner hosted several anniversary parties for us in San Francisco. He was always generous and kind to our family. Now, my father was being taught that Frank was a sinful man, condemned to be burned in Hell.

Beyond expressing my disagreement as gently as I could, I mainly listened. My point of view wasn’t going to change what my father believed. Besides, the old fellow may have expired from hypothermia listening to me. We put out the fire, retired to the warmth of our down sleeping bags, and dreamt we were spaceships hurtling through space.

Over the next few days, Pop and I covered a good bit of Alaska, ending up in Homer. His sister Francis had raised her children there and he wanted to see the town. Afterwards, I drove him back to the airport and made sure his pipe was out before taking him inside and seeing him off. It took months for my truck to stop smelling like tobacco smoke.

NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG: A final story about Pop. Did he really leave me a message after he passed away or was it the invention of my over-wrought imagination? Plus— My final thoughts on religion.