A Tiger and Headhunters: Flying Across the Hump… Part 3 of 3

The plane John Dallen was flying across the Hump in World War II crashed in Manipur and John walked out.

This photo was taken of John immediately after he walked out of the jungle when his plane crashed while he was flying the Hump in World War II. He is holding the boots he wore. His parachute pack is in front.


This is my final post on Peggy’s dad, John Dallen, when he was forced to bail out into Burma jungle when returning from a flight into China across the Himalayan Mountains. 


“The conditions were at their worst—raining, pitch black and over territory regarded as plenty rugged. I landed in a jungle so dense that I couldn’t even move. The only sensible thing to do was to pull part of the parachute over me and try to catch some sleep.”

John Dallen in a letter to his wife Helen on February 18, 1945— eight days after he had parachuted out of his damaged C-109 over an Indian jungle when flying the Hump in World War II.

Saturday, February 10, 1945

I left John in my last post as he jumped into the pitch-black night and watched his plane erupt in flames as it went down. Below him was a jungle he couldn’t see. “I had no idea of what I was jumping into,” he reported to his niece Jennifer Hagedorn Mikacich in an oral history. “I hit one layer of the jungle, and then a second, and then a third— crashing through each one and hit the ground hard.” John was battered and bruised but not seriously injured. It was close to midnight.

Catching his breath, and I suspect calming what had to be raw nerves, he pulled out his 45 caliber pistol and fired it into air. John was hoping for a response from his crew members; there was nothing. They had either landed too far away or couldn’t respond. They might be hanging in a tree 100-feet off the ground.

Caught in undergrowth so thick he could barely move, he gathered his parachute around him to stay as dry as possible and tried “to catch some sleep.” At some point in the night he heard a tiger cough.

“Weren’t you afraid, Grandpa?” Jennifer asked.

“I was uneasy,” he confessed some 40 years afterwards. This was Bengal Tiger country and the big males could weigh over 500 pounds and be up 10 feet long. A few, usually older ones who had difficulty catching prey, turned into man-eaters. John had actually seen a record size Bengal Tiger that had been killed because it had been preying on livestock. I’m sure he pictured it in his mind when the tiger coughed.

But John had other concerns as well. The plane had crashed near Nagaland and the Naga were renowned as headhunters. Hump pilots dreaded landing in their territory. The army manual for jungle survival in World War II stated that there were only two areas in Asia where soldiers had to worry about natives: “in New Guinea and certain parts of Burma.” He was quite close to those “certain parts of Burma.” In fact the Naga had a significant presence in the state of Manipur, where his plane had gone down.

Ursula Bower, a pioneering anthropologist in the Naga Hills who became a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese in World War II, noted, “most villages had a skull house and each man in the village was expected to contribute to the collection… There is nothing more glorious for a Naga than victory in battle and bringing home the severed head of an enemy.” Men who failed, she noted, were known as cows. Head hunting by the Naga would continue up until the 1970s and possibly even 80s. John was wise to worry about keeping his head.

A third concern of John’s was that local villagers might turn him over to the Japanese. The US offered rewards to natives who helped downed crews get back to American bases, but the Japanese had a similar program. John might believe he was being led to safety when actually he was being led into a trap.

Sunday, February 11, 1945

All of these thoughts were going through John’s mind the next morning when he awoke at first light and made a pack out of his parachute to carry his Army-issued jungle survival kit. It contained, among other things, water purification tablets, anti-malaria pills, and sulfonamide, the first of the ‘miracle’ drugs discovered that fought bacterial infection. John would use all three. Other standard items in the kit included matches, a compass, a signaling mirror, bouillon/tea, and even fishing gear.

John knew he had to travel west to find US bases and safety. The Japanese were to the east, the Naga to the north, and more jungle to the south. Travelling west was a challenge, however. There are no landmarks in a jungle, only trees and more trees. It is easy to end up traveling in circles. Fortunately, John had a compass and the sun to serve as guides. He also had Boy Scout training, which he would credit later with helping him find his way.

“Part the jungle, don’t push it,” the Army’s World War II jungle survival manual urged. “Keep your head up and your chin in. Try to follow a stream downstream, and try as far as possible to stick to natural trails, or native trails. Don’t try to break your way through.” The best trails, apparently, were elephant trails, jungle freeways three to four feet wide.

John followed the advice— sort of. “I hacked my way through the mess for several hours.” It would have been excruciatingly slow going; especially since the only thing he had to hack with were his hands. The jungle was close to impenetrable. Numerous scratches on his face and hands joined his bruises from the night before. Eventually, he found an animal path that led him to a trail that showed human footprints. And the trail led to a small village.

The natives looked quite “primitive,” and dangerous. Armed with machetes, they were dressed only in loincloths. Animal tusks and silver jewelry adorned their ears and body. It seemed, however, that they were friendly. John could keep his head. While none of them spoke English, “A native boy kept pointing in a general direction, which I assumed was the direction for me to follow. He led the way and I gradually picked up quite a following of natives.”

After passing through several small villages, John and his parade came to a village of about 75 inhabitants, where a surprise was waiting: one very excited and worried, co-pilot, Ronald Anderson. “Ron was a big guy, an ex-football player,” John reported. But he hadn’t had John’s luck. His parachute had become entangled in a tree and Ron had to cut himself free, leaving the parachute with its survival kit hanging high above his head. He was genuinely shaken up. Like John, he was battered, bruised and scratched, but he had no serious injuries.

The villagers took John and Ronald to the village headman. Fortunately, a villager was found who could speak some English. Food was generously offered, but John had no idea of what he might be eating; he stuck to bananas and rice. It seems that Ron was equally conservative. That night they slept on sleeping mats next to the headman. Somewhat humorously, John reported in his letter to Helen, “This type of sleeping is ideal for the figure, and even I was sore all over the next morning.”

Monday, February 12, 1945

The headman offered to guide John and Ron on to another village and John woke up early, eager to get started. But he didn’t dare get up.

“I had to pretend sleep because the women of the household were preparing their food in the same room where we were. There are castes in India where the women cannot associate with the men—-especially outsiders— and had I shown signs of awakening, they would have left the room. Eventually they finished and we got up at which time we were offered more rice and the native tea. It is made from a spiced leaf and the liquid content is mostly goat’s milk. I did not touch the rice that morning but did finish the banana from the previous day.” He didn’t report on whether he drank the tea, but he must have been ravenous. At six-foot-two and 150 pounds, John was a skinny guy without an ounce of fat.

When they finally hit the trail, it immediately disappeared into the jungle. They were forced to hike cross-country. Adding to the difficulty of the route, it started to rain again. “We waded down streams for miles and crawled up and down practically impossible hills. Several times we heard planes overhead, but could make no attempt to signal to them because of the thick jungle vegetation overhead.”

(By 1945, sophisticated search and rescue efforts were under way, but the majority of crews that survived crashes still walked out on their own. Many airmen shared John’s experience. During the first three months of 1945 alone, 92 planes crashed while flying the Hump.)

A small village provided a lunch of two hard-boiled eggs. Afterwards, their guides were reluctant to start again. So was John’s co-pilot. The difficult route had begun to wear on him. “Here’s where that Infantry training paid everlasting dividends,” John observed. He was pushing hard, and he was a fast hiker.

“Several times I thought of pulling out my pistol and shooting him.” Ron claimed after they had returned to base.

They arrived at their next destination just at dusk and made a meal of “tea, oranges, bananas, eggs and even cigarettes, such as they were.” The natives were eager to help and would not accept any payment. They were “curious about our complexion, clothes and equipment.” John was amused when a few of the natives tried to break strands from the parachute with their hands. “The look of surprise on their faces was something to see.”

John had even more powerful magic. He was taken to a man whom a tiger had mauled. He treated the wound with sulfonamide. Gangrene had set in, however. John doubted the medicine would do much good, but the villagers were grateful for his effort.

Tuesday, February 13, 1945

“The day’s trip was a repetition of the previous day, possibly a little harder since our muscles were already sore,” John wrote to Helen. At noon they arrived at a village where they met the first and only native “who did not cooperate with us wholeheartedly.” The man had an “extremely mercenary attitude” and wanted to be paid for help. Obviously John and Ron were getting close to civilization.

That night they arrived at a village that was an outpost of the Indian police but the two police officials were away. A young Moslem merchant invited them to his home and fed them nuts and dates while they had “quite the gabfest on India and the British.” They slept that night in the jail under mosquito netting the merchant had loaned them.

Wednesday, February 14, 1945 (I wonder if John realized it was Valentine’s Day?)

The young Moslem provided John and his co-pilot with breakfast the next morning and John provided their host with Atabrine tablets for an attack of malaria he was suffering from. Their host also had another request. Since “most of the natives had never seen a pistol or seen it operate, he asked us to fire a few rounds. When both of us opened up at rapid fire, half of the villagers ran away in alarm— It even frightened our friend.”

With an option of continuing the trip by boat or walking, John chose walking since it would get them out faster. Travelling over relatively flat ground, they hiked 16 miles in 5 hours and arrived at a village where a sub-inspector of police was stationed. A telegraph line ran out of the village and John was able to send a telegram to his CO that he and his co-pilot were alive and well.

Their host that night provided them with their first bath since their ordeal started: “out of a pail of course, but at least the water was hot.” He also offered “some food other than the fruit prepared in a manner we could eat… He had cauliflower tips French fried crisp in butter that was exceptionally good.” John urged Helen to cook some up for herself.

That evening they ended up with a long discussion about India and her problems. “Our British allies ears would burn had they heard some of the opinions expressed about them.” John noted.   After eating again, they ‘hit the sack’. “Our host proved that snoring is a universal custom.”

Thursday, February 15, 1945

The trip the next morning had a twist. They rode on an elephant. “I believe it was the hardest part of the trip,” John whined to Helen. “The animal is rather broad-beamed as you can imagine and even my legs couldn’t quite make the spread.” He jokingly reported in his oral interview with Jennifer that he was “worried for his manhood.”

An English tea plantation was waiting for him at the end of the journey, however. John found it “remarkable to find a veritable mansion stuck in this wilderness.” A drink was immediately placed in his hand and a meal ordered. “The house was spotless with beautiful furniture and silverware all around. There were acres of lawn, flowerbeds and even a stable of polo ponies. The servants were perfectly trained and dressed as if from a scene in Arabian Nights.”

Even more welcoming, after they had washed up and eaten, the plantation manager gave them a ride in his truck to the nearby airbase of Shamshernagar. The ordeal had ended.

John’s first acts were to borrow some clean clothes and have a hot shower. After “a meal of real American food and not a few drinks under my belt, I dropped you a line which I certainly hope reached you in the fastest possible time.”

The letter tag John wrote to Helen immediately after walking out from the airplane crash.

The letter that John wrote to Helen immediately after walking out from the airplane crash. He had hoped that the letter would reach her before the telegram announcing that he was missing in action. It didn’t.

On returning to his base at Kurmitola, John learned that “the rest of my crew turned up a few days later after having a much easier time of it. They landed on a mountainside and had practically a road all the way to a base. As a matter of fact the last few days were a lark to them, having spent them at a most hospitable tea planter’s estate. Personal servants, meals in bed, etc. I could kick myself for having worried about them so much.”

John was given a week’s R&R in Ceylon and then returned to his flying duties. He would fly 55 more missions across the Hump. On July 26 he transferred to Tezgaon (now in Bangladesh). Every flight from that point on was in a C-54. His last flights were on September 26, 1945 from Shanghai to Liuchow to Tezgaon, piloting a C-54 for seven hours of daylight flying, four of nighttime flying, with two hours on instruments. He had logged 2788 hours since his first student flight.

I would like to conclude with a special thank you to John’s son, John Dallen Jr., our son, Tony Lumpkin, and my friend Mike Sweeney for helping in the research for my three blogs on the Hump pilots.

Hump pilots from World War II being honored in China in 1996.

In 1996 China invited Hump pilots and crews back to China to honor their World War II efforts and establish a memorial in Kunming. John is in the middle of the lower row next to the woman with the dark blouse.

John and Peggy on the American River in 2006. Every Wednesday, I was privileged to pick John up and take him for a walk on the river. Even in his late 80's, he still loved to hike.

John and Peggy on the American River in Sacramento in 2006. Every Wednesday, I was privileged to pick John up and take him for a walk on the river. Even in his late 80’s, he still loved to hike.





Bailing out in a Stormy, Dark Night into an Unknown Jungle: Flying the Hump in World War II… Part 2 of 3

An Army Air Transport plane flies across the Hump in World War II.

For years, this painting of a C-109 flying the Hump was hung in my father-in-law’s home. It reminded him of his experience in World War II of flying supplies from India to China across the Himalaya Mountains. The painting now hangs in our son Tony’s home.

This is part II of my story about when Peggy’s dad, John Dallen, was forced to bail out of his plane on a pitch black, stormy night into a Burma jungle while returning from a flight across the Himalayan Mountains during World War II.

On February 10, 1945, my wife Peggy’s dad, John Dallen, began an adventure that would become an important part of our family history. At the time, he was  serving as a World War II pilot for the Army Air Corps, flying fuel, ordinance, and troops from India into China to support Chinese and American efforts in the war against Japan. His 15th mission across the Hump began as routine. It would end with him parachuting into a raging storm, a pitch-black night, and an unknown jungle as his plane crashed in a ball of flame.

The Mission:

The briefing that morning would have been straightforward: Fly 900 miles from his home base of Kurmitola, India (near what is now Dhaka, Bangladesh) to Chengdu, China, deliver several tons of airplane fuel, and fly back to Kurmitola. (The fuel was used to support B-29 bombers that were based in Chengdu.)

The Fine Print:

John would be flying a C-109 tanker, an airplane that had been converted from a B-24 bomber by removing all of its armaments and adding extra fuel tanks. John was an experienced B-24 pilot from his training and instructor time in the US. While the B-24 was never known for its ease of flying, the converted C-109 was even more difficult to fly, especially when loaded. Landing at high altitudes with a load of fuel, as he would be in Chengdu, was particularly dangerous.

He had never flown this particular C-109 or with any of his crew, which was normal when flying the Hump. His crew members on this flight included a co-pilot (Ronald D. Anderson), an engineer (James E. Hatley), and a radio operator (John D. Beach).

His route was known as one of the most difficult anywhere. He would be flying over trackless jungles in Burma and the rugged, uncharted Himalaya Mountains, the highest mountain range in the world.

The only thing predictable about the weather was that it was unpredictable. He could have a relatively uneventful flight, or it could be filled with storms, turbulence and winds well over 100 miles per hour. Regardless of what the weather would be, he was expected to fly through it. This was standard procedure for Hump pilots in 1944/45. He did know that he would be aided by a tailwind going over and would be fighting a headwind coming back.

The Flight:

Both the flight and landing at Hsinching airfield in Chengdu were uneventful, or at least uneventful from the perspective of a Hump pilot. They made it with minimal bad weather. The flight had taken 5 hours and used 1100 gallons of fuel. At 2:30 p.m. they were ready for their return flight to Kurmitola. Using a stick measurement, the engineer estimated that some 1700 gallons of fuel remained. John and operational staff at Hsinching determined that this would be adequate for the return flight.

It was one of those times when the fuel tanks should have been topped off. The headwinds were stronger than the predicted 60-70 mph. The trip back would take longer than expected. John climbed to 17,000 feet and flew the plane to conserve fuel. Eight hours later at 10:30 p.m., the plane was still 300 miles out from Kurmitola. The engineer reported that there would not be enough fuel to make it. John decided to make for the much nearer air base of Shamshernagar near Talagaon, India.

Dropping down to 13,000 feet, he immediately encountered a snowstorm with moderate to severe turbulence and light icing. While he had to fly by instrument, it wasn’t the snowstorm that created close to impossible flying conditions; it was the thunderstorm waiting on the other side. “It was the severest I ever encountered,” John stated in his official post accident report.

He was more descriptive in the oral history he would give to his granddaughter Jennifer 50 years later. “The plane was tossed from side to side and up and down. There was no way to control it.” Breaking out on the other side, the plane was hit by an “extremely violent jolt,” (probably a lightning strike) which apparently damaged the plane. “It started turning to the left in spite of full right rudder application.” There was more bad news.

His co-pilot reported that engine number one had shut down, apparently out of fuel. John immediately ordered cross fueling from the fullest tank. The engine sputtered back to life. The engineer reported that there was 80 gallons of fuel left, but all gauges were now showing empty. Other engines began to sputter in and out.

Surrounded by thunder and lightning, his plane circling to the left, and his gauges showing empty, John was out of options. He ordered his radio operator to send out a Mayday. They were going to bail out of the plane before it was too late. The engineer and radio operator jumped first, the co-pilot next, and John last.

They jumped into a pitch-black night, lit only by lighting. It was impossible to see what they were jumping into. Would it be a river filled with floodwaters from the raging storm? Would they crash into the jungle trees that were known to grow upwards to 150 feet? Would their parachutes get caught in the trees leaving them dangling a hundred feet above the ground in the dark night? Would the crew members land close to each other or be scattered miles apart across the jungle? Would they survive?

As John’s parachute snapped open and he began his descent into the darkness, the horizon was suddenly lit by a ball of fire as the plane crashed into the jungle. It had been close, too close.

NEXT BLOG: Landing in the jungle and walking out.

John Dallen circa 1930

A photo of young John looking quite studious, which he was.

Photo of John Dallen as a First Lieutenant in World War II.

John’s official First Lieutenant photo.

A photo of John and Helen Dallen during World War II.

John and his wife, Helen (Peggy’s mom) stateside before he was sent overseas to India. They were to be married for over 66 years.

Paul Revere Still Rides… Boston Part 2

This sculpture of Paul Revere

This sculpture of Paul Revere outside of the Old North Church in Boston commemorates Revere’s ride on April 18, 1875 to warn Colonials that General Thomas Gage’s troops were on their way to Lexington and Concord.


Listen my children and you shall hear /Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, /It was on the 18th of April, in Seventy five, /Hardly a man is now alive/ Who remembers that famous day and year. —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

By 1860, when these lines were penned, very few people indeed would have remembered the ride, so Longfellow was free to report the facts as he saw them, even though they were a bit “alternative.” As a dedicated abolitionist, he wanted to use his poem to alert the citizens to prepare for the impending struggles ahead in holding the nation together and in freeing the slaves, as well as recognize Revere’s heroism.  The last lines of the poem urged:

In the hour of darkness and peril and need, /The people will waken and listen to hear /The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed, /And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

 I can’t help but wonder if the 150,000 people who gathered on Boston Commons Saturday as part of the Women’s March to protest Donald Trump’s treatment of women and policies on healthcare, the environment and education hadn’t heard echoes of the hurrying hoof-beats. 

When Peggy and I walked across the Boston Commons three weeks ago, it was a quiet day except for fat squirrels wanting to become fatter. Back in 1775 when Paul Revere made his mad dash, British troops were camped out here. On Saturday, an estimated 150,000 gathered between here and the Massachusetts Statehouse for the Women's March. I thought the woman's statue was appropriate for this photo.

When Peggy and I walked across the Boston Commons a few weeks ago (shown above with the Massachusetts Statehouse), it was a quiet day except for fat squirrels wanting to become fatter. Back in 1775, British troops were camped out on the Commons. On Saturday, an estimated 150,000 people gathered here for the Women’s March.

A fat squirrel.

A fat squirrel occupies the Commons much more successfully than the British soldiers who suffered from a lack of food.

Longfellow was inspired to write the poem the day after climbing the steeple of the Old North Church where lanterns were hung to warn that British soldiers were moving toward Lexington and Concord.

Steeple of the Old North Church in Boston, Massachusetts that played an important role in the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

The Old North Church steeple where two lanterns were hung to warn that General Gage’s Redcoats were on the move by sea. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The Old North Church in Boston, Massachusetts.

A view of the back of the Old North Church. Peggy and I visited on a grey day when we experienced both rain and snow. And it was even colder than it looks!

Front view of Old North Church in Boston, Massachusetts.

A front view of the Old North Church.

Looking toward the back of the Old North Church.

Looking toward the back of the Old North Church. The stairs leading up to the steeple where the lanterns were displayed is behind the organ pipes.

Organ pipes at Old North Church in Boston.

A close up of the organ pipes. I am assuming the angel is Gabriel.

Looking across box pews toward the altar at the Old North Church in Boston.

Looking toward the front of the church. In 1775 the church was Anglican. Today it is Episcopalian, the American equivalent. Note the interesting box pews.

Peggy sits in one of the pews holding a hymnal. Today, the pews are based on first come-first serve. But in 1775, the pews were 'owned' by their occupants and passed down through families. One of the guides told us that the cost for one the pews was the equivalent of what a middle class family might earn in a year today. Not cheap.

Peggy sits in one of the pews holding a hymnal. Today, the pews are based on first come-first serve. But in 1775, the pews were ‘owned’ by their occupants and passed down through families. One of the guides told us that the cost for a pew was the equivalent of what a middle class family might earn in a year today. Not cheap.

On the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere's ride, President Gerald Ford hung a third lantern in the Old North Church to inspire hope, peace and prosperity.

On the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride, President Gerald Ford hung a third lantern in the Old North Church to inspire hope, peace and prosperity.

The British had two objectives: one to arrest the Colonial leaders, John Hancock and John Adams, who were in Lexington at the time— and two, to go on to Concord and seize gunpowder that the Colonialists were storing in case the disagreement with Britain came down to war. Thomas Gage, the commanding general of the British forces in Boston, had been very secretive about his plans, but not secretive enough.

The plans were discovered, two lanterns were hung in the Old North Church, and Revere along with two other riders set out on their midnight rides. Hancock and Adams escaped and hundreds of militia from surrounding towns, known as Minute Men for their readiness to fight on a moment’s notice, grabbed their muskets and streamed toward Lexington and Concord. A shot was fired in Lexington and a battle ensued. It is still debated whether the British or the Colonialists fired first.

While the British won the first round, they marched on to Concord where they were met by a much larger group of Minute Men. Another battle started and the British decided it was time to return to Boston. Somewhat in disarray, the British troops hurried along the road as the ‘rebels’ took potshots at them in their hasty retreat. The Minute Men had proven that they could effectively fight against the much better trained British troops.

While the Declaration of Independence was still a year off, the Revolutionary War was underway.

Another view of Paul Revere on his ride to warn that the Redcoats were coming.

Another view of Paul Revere on his ride to warn that the Redcoats were coming.

Paul Revere's home on the Freedom Trail in Boston, Massachusetts.

Paul Revere’s home, snuggled up to a taller building, is a few blocks away from the Old North Church. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Another view of Revere's home.

Another view of Revere’s home. Revere was a noted silversmith of his time and a successful businessman.

The poem that made Revere a household name for generations of Americans following its publishing date in 1861.

The poem that made Revere a household name for generations of Americans.

Paul Revere's tombstone in the Granary Graveyard, a place where will visit in our blog next week.

Paul Revere’s tombstone in the Granary Graveyard, a place we will visit in our blog next week.


Wednesday: Back to the Sierra Trek for the route preview, heart-break, a trip to Canada, and 20 cases of Ham Cheddarton.

Friday: The first 2017 post on Burning Man. Part one of a series of photographic essays selected from several thousand photos Peggy, I and several friends have taken at the event since 2004.

When …—… Saved Lives: The Marconi Telegraph Station at Point Reyes


1 Tunnel of Cypress Trees at Marconi-RCA wireless site Point Reyes

This tunnel of cypress trees leading into the Marconi-RCA wireless receiving station at Point Reyes National Seashore in California is considered one of the most beautiful tree tunnels in the world.

Do you recognize the dits and dahs? I memorized what they meant for a Boy Scout badge back in the Dark Ages, back before satellites and modern communication systems came to connect almost anyone, anywhere, anytime. Here’s a clue: the three dots stands for S, and the three dashes for O. Think SOS: Save Our Ship. You will recognize the whole alphabet spelled out in dits and dahs as Morse Code, named after the American inventor Samuel Morse, who developed it in 1838.

Morse Code

Morse Code

Combined with telegraph lines and operators, it revolutionized communication. Getting the quickest message between points A and B no longer required finding the fastest horse or train. Seconds instead of days or weeks became the rule for sending important communications over long distances.

What Morse did for land based communication, Guglielmo Marconi did for oceans. His claim to fame was being the prime inventor of wireless communication using radio waves. He started at the young age of 21, working in his attic in Italy with his butler Mignani. (I am reminded of the young Steve Jobs, sans butler, working out of his garage in Palo Alto.) Like Jobs, Marconi was an entrepreneurial genius as well as an electronics wizard, or geek, if you prefer. He began by sending a message across his attic in 1894 to ring a bell. By 1902, he’d cornered the market on sending wireless messages using Morse Code across the Atlantic Ocean.

Ships at sea and their passengers were among the primary beneficiaries of the new technology. “Surprise, you are a new father. Send money,” could now be transmitted immediately instead of weeks down the line. There was also a safety factor. For the iceberg bound Titanic, it meant that 30% of its passengers were saved— instead of none.

By 1914, Marconi had extended his operation to the Pacific Ocean and built sending and receiving stations in the Marin County towns of Bolinas and Marshall north of San Francisco. (Because of interference, sending and receiving stations had to be separated.) During and immediately after World War I, military concerns combined with a touch of nationalism, and, I suspect, a generous dollop of old-fashioned greed, led to the take over of Marconi’s American operation and its transformation into RCA, the Radio Corporation of America.

A Mural in Olema, California that provides a look at what the community looked like when it served as the sending station of Marconi telegraph. The blue surfboard represents a bit of artist creativity. (grin)

A mural in Olema, California just north of San Francisco that provides a look at what the community looked like when it served as the Pacific Ocean telegraph sending station for Marconi-RCA telegraph. The blue surfboard represents a bit of artist creativity. (grin)

An early photo of the Marconi receiving site in the small town of Marshall on Tomales Bay.

An early photo of the Marconi receiving site in the small town of Marshall on Tomales Bay. Workers lived in the hotel.

The hotel as it looks today as part of the Marconi Conference Center.

The hotel as it looks today as part of the Marconi Conference Center.

6. Old Highway 57 and Highway 1 in Marshall

Old Highway 57, the dirt road, once serviced the Marshall Marconi wireless receiving site. Modern Highway 1 is seen below along with Tomales Bay. The distant hills are part of Point Reyes National Seashore.

7 Old 1873 Seafood restaurant in Marshall Ca

Historic Marshall included this old/now deserted seafood restaurant built in 1873.

Today, Marshall is know for its oysters and kayak eco-tours.

Today, Marshall is known for its oysters and kayak eco-tours.

I hound this old rocking chair sitting alone Highway one. All it needed was an old codger to sit in it.

I found this old rocking chair sitting along Highway 1. All it needed was an old codger to sit in it.

In 1929, the Marshall operation was moved to Point Reyes. It was still there actively receiving messages when I first started visiting the National Seashore in the late 60s and early 70s. A forest of receiving antennas and no trespassing signs announced its presence. Most of the communication with American ships involved in the Vietnam War passed through the facility. On July 12, 1999, the station sent its last message. Dits and dahs had been made obsolete by bits and bytes.

I was drawn there on my August trip up the North Coast of California by a statement I had found on the Net stating that the cypress trees at the entrance formed one of the most beautiful tree tunnels in the world. Even though I had driven by the facility dozens of times over the years, I had never noticed. Shame on me. When I drove up, a group of amateur photographers with expensive cameras were busily proving the point. I joined the queue with my small Cannon S-100.

I was also blessed with a touch of serendipity. A display sign announced that the Maritime Radio Historical Society was featuring a display on telegraph use in Marconi’s impressive Art Deco headquarters. I drove down under the tunnel of trees and walked through the building’s open door. An hour later I emerged with the distinctive sound of a telegraph keys clattering away in my ears and enough information for a dozen blogs.

The lovely art deco building built by Marconi-RCA for its telegraph receiving station at Point Reyes National Seashore.

The lovely art deco building was built by Marconi-RCA for its telegraph receiving station at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Steven King, a volunteer with the Marine

Steven King, a volunteer with the Maritime Historical Radio Society and the Point Reyes National Seashore spent most of an hour explaining how the Marconi-RCA wireless receiving station worked during its heyday.

12 Telegraph call letters for ships at Marconi-RCA wireless site Point Reyes

Every ship at sea had its own call sign for receiving telegraphs. These were left when the last telegraphs were sent out in 1999.

A view of the telegraph receiving antennas as they look today.

A view of the telegraph receiving antennas as they look today.

This tunnel of cypress trees leading into the Marconi-RCA headquarters receiving station at Point Reyes National Seashore in California is considered one of the most beautiful tree tunnels in the world.

I had a final opportunity to drive under the beautiful bower of trees as I returned to the highway.

NEXT BLOG: I head north for the small town of Bodega to explore where Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds was filmed and discover a church that was photographed by Ansel Adams.

What to Do When a Nike Missile Is Pointed at You… Surrender.

This Nike missile came out of the ground and was pointed at me when I was visiting Golden Gate National Recreation Area just north of San Francisco. I quickly moved aside and snapped its photo.

This Nike missile came out of the ground and was pointed at me when I was visiting Golden Gate National Recreation Area just north of San Francisco. I quickly moved aside and snapped its photo. Missiles were raised skyward before being fired.


I heard a whirring sound just before the large metal gates clanked open. A Nike missile rose ominously out of the ground. It was pointed at me. “I surrender,” I said to the missile as I slowly raised my hands. It seemed like the wise thing to do. Not very long ago (1953-1979), back in the disturbing days of the Cold War, this deadly weapon had been loaded with a nuclear warhead two-three times as powerful as the atom bombs America had dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. It still spoke of destruction, but now it was defanged. It had become a museum piece, a shell of its former self, a relic of our very scary past.

SF-88 is located in what is now the Golden Gate National Recreation Area just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It was one of 300 Nike missile sites across the US built as a last line of defense against Soviet bombers carrying nuclear weapons. It now serves as the only restored Nike site in America.

I visited the museum as part of my August trip up the North Coast of California. When I arrived, two park rangers sat outside enjoying the sun. I put one to work; he volunteered to take me on a personal tour of the underground facility. We climbed down the stairs with our footsteps echoing into a large room filled with missiles. After describing how the massive weapons were to be used, he suggested I try pulling one on its track. I couldn’t believe how easily it moved; I felt like I had super powers. He explained that the system was designed for getting the missiles up and ready to fire in 15 minutes. Several million lives depended on quick action.

Each of the 300 Nike missile sites around the US had several Nike missiles ready to fire off in 15 minutes to take down Russian bombers.

Each of the 300 Nike missile sites around the US had several Nike missiles ready to fire off in 15 minutes to take down Russian bombers approaching the country.

4. One of the Nike missiles at SF-88

A view of one of the missiles. They were large enough I couldn’t capture the full missile within the confines of its underground bunker.

I easily moved one of the Nike Missiles.

I easily moved one of the Nike Missiles along the track toward its launching station.

5.The Nike missiles at SF-88 would rise through these gates

These gates would open in preparation for a launch of the Nike Missiles.

The Nike missiles at SF-88 were intended to target Russian bombers 90 mile off the coast from the Golden Gate. The nuclear warheads were to assure that none got through. The greatest fear was that they might be carrying 50-megaton Tsar Hydrogen bombs, the mother of all bombs. The Russians had built one and blown it up as a warning to the US. To put things in perspective, it had 1,350–1,570 times the explosive power of the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The Tsar Bomb,” the park ranger explained, “would be exploded a few thousand feet up in the air above San Francisco.” All people living in the region would be killed. There would no longer be a San Francisco, an Oakland, a San Jose, a Berkeley, or any of the other communities located in the Bay Area. Neither would there be any birds, mammals, reptiles, trees, grass, or other life left living. A chill settled over me as I recalled I was a student at Berkeley during the 60s, at the height of the Cold War.

I thought even the smaller Nike weapons would be devastating to the region. The prominent west winds would bring deadly radiation from the explosions raining down on the Bay Area and points east. “What would it matter?” the ranger asked. What indeed. Once a nuclear war started, the US and Russia had enough nuclear weapons to wipe out life on earth— several times over.

Having heard enough bad news, I climbed out of the bunker leaving the ranger to explain doomsday to another group of visitors that had arrived. I was outside by myself when Nike Missile came rumbling up from its underground hideout. No one had told me it was part of the tour.

The gates as seen from above. I don't know, but I suspect they would have been camouflaged during the Cold War.

The gates as seen from above. I don’t know, but I suspect they would have been camouflaged during the Cold War.

I heard a whirring sound, the gates clanked open, and the missile arose out of its bunker.

I heard a whirring sound, the gates clanked open, and the missile arose out of its bunker.

What would have been lost during a nuclear war.

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Nike missile site is over the hill from where I took this photo.

NEXT BLOG: I visit the Marconi Station at Point Reyes National Seashore where Morse Code messages were once sent out to all ships at sea in the Pacific Ocean— and are still sent out to the sunken Titanic in the Atlantic.


Rancho Olompali: “The White House of Hippiedom”

It was quiet and peaceful when I visit Olompali. But this platform was once alive with laughter, music and work as members of the Chosen Family made bread to be distributed by the Diggers in San Francisco.

It was quiet and peaceful when I visited Olompali. But this platform was once alive with laughter, music and bread as members of the Chosen Family commune made thousands of loaves to be distributed by the Diggers for free in San Francisco during the late 60s.

Today marks the end of my series on Olompali. Originally, I had planned to write one blog. This is my fifth, and each post has been relatively long. The truth is, I got caught up in the subject, and the more research I did, the more caught up I became. I lived through the 60s and spent considerable time in the Bay Area where these tales took place. I became an activist, committed to change, but I missed the early rock scene, didn’t do LSD, and steered clear of communes. None-the-less, I shared many of the values of those who did travel down these paths. 

The 60s were a time when a significant number of young people rebelled against the world of their parents and went seeking something else. As Don McCoy, the founder of the Chosen Family would say, to “create a new way of life, a new way of doing things, a new way of living together, getting along in a peaceful world.” Looking back, this perspective seems almost Quixotic to me. We were tilting at windmills.

But the windmills were real— and scary. America and Russia had accumulated enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the world several times over. Minorities, women, and gays were buried under a suffocating blanket of discrimination that limited who they were and what they might become. Leaders that promised change, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, were shot down, one after another by people who may have been insane— but were reflective of something deeper and darker. A far-off war in Southeast Asia was sucking us into a quagmire that was tearing our nation apart. And last, but far from least, we were awakening to the fact that our desire for more and more of everything was polluting the planet, literally poisoning our home. “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” Pogo proclaimed.

In spite of all of this, or maybe because of it, change was in the air. People across the country felt it. In the Bay Area it was so palpable you could almost taste it. (Listen to the Age of Aquarius here by the Fifth Dimension to get an over-the-top sense of its idealistic flavor.)

Those of us who got caught up in optimism and passion of the 60s believed we could make a difference. Our solutions varied tremendously. For some, like me, it meant joining groups like the Peace Corps and Vista, and working from within the system to achieve change. Others believed more radical solutions were called for. Massive protests and even violence resulted. And some people opted out, either by focusing inward with the aid of meditation or drugs such as LSD, or, more directly, by simply removing themselves from every day society and establishing a new life.

Don McCoy represented the latter. He and a few friends, plus their children, moved to Rancho Olompali in November of 1967 to establish the Chosen Family commune. “God chose us to be family with each other, and also, we chose each other for family,” he said. McCoy was aided in his vision by a $350, 000 inheritance, which is the equivalent of close to 3½ million dollars today.

By most accounts, McCoy was a generous man. One story that reflects his generosity relates to Alan Watts, the Zen philosopher, who was living on a houseboat in Sausalito (possibly one of Don’s). When the Indian musician, Ali Akbar Khan, told Watts he wanted to start a music college for teaching Indian music in Northern California and needed money, Alan immediately called Don. Within an hour, McCoy had shown up and given Khan a check for $20,000. (Khan, along with Ravi Shankar, was instrumental in introducing Indian music to the West. His college still exists today in San Rafael.)

As for Rancho Olompali, McCoy picked up the full tab. He started by leasing the property around the house and barns, including the swimming pool. When neighbors, who ran a riding school business on another section of the property, complained about seeing nude people in the swimming pool, he leased the whole ranch and kicked out the neighbors.

Olompali provided an excellent location for the Chosen Family and Included this 20 plus room mansion.

Olompali provided an excellent location for the Chosen Family. It included this 20 plus room mansion, beautiful landscaping and an Olympic-size swimming pool. (Archival photo.)

This large fountain with a blue heron sculpture on top was part of the landscaping.

This large fountain with a blue heron sculpture on top was part of the landscaping. (Archival photo.)

The palms seen on the left side of the mansion as they appear today.

The palms seen on the left side of the mansion as they appear today.

Leasing the rest of the property open up several hundred acres for the commune members to wander through.

Leasing the rest of the property opened up several hundred acres of beautiful country for the commune members to wander through.

McCoy insisted that the adults who came to live at Olompali give up their day jobs. The commune was to be the center of their lives. Food, transportation, health care, and even entertainment were to be supplied, everything necessary to live. And McCoy would pay for it. This didn’t mean that commune members didn’t work. There was food to grow, meals to cook, dishes to do, cows to milk and horses to care for. The property had several horses, including one boarded by Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead percussionist. Snorty, the horse, even made it into the group photo taken at Olompali that appeared on the back of the Dead’s album, Aoxomoxoa.

Snorty is in the back of the photo.

Snorty is in the back of the photo to the right of the oak tree.

All of the commune members, including the children, were expected to chip in when it came to chores. One of the biggest was cooking bread. A bakery owner had gone out of business and donated his equipment to the commune. A seven-sided cement pad was poured (it still stands at the park as shown in the top photo), and the equipment installed. Commune members then went to work. Clothing was optional. Twice a week they would bake several hundred loaves of bread in coffee cans. The bread was then turned over to the Diggers to distribute for free in San Francisco.

Pouring concrète for the cement pad.

Pouring concrète for the cement pad. (Archival photo.)

Chosen Family members making bread at Rancho Olompali that will be distributed by the Diggers for free in San Francisco. Clothing was optional. (Photo from the Berkeley Barb.)

Chosen Family members making bread at Rancho Olompali that was distributed by the Diggers for free in San Francisco. Clothing was optional. The bread was put in coffee cans as seen in foreground and rose over the top, giving it the name mushroom bread. (Photo from the Berkeley Barb.)

There was also a side business known as The Garden of Delights where commune members would put on light shows for the various rock groups performing at venues in the Bay Area.

Children were regarded as a communal responsibility. On Mondays, their names were placed in a hat. Adults would then draw names and adopt the child he or she drew for the week. If you had issues as a child, you took them to your adopted parent, not Mommy or Daddy.

A decision was made to educate the children on site rather in local schools. (Otherwise, how could you instill the proper hippie values?) An ex-principal/teacher from the Nicasio Elementary School, Garnet Brennan, was recruited into the commune as the teacher. Brennan had been fired from the Nicasio School District after a thirty-year career in education because she had admitted to smoking pot when she was testifying on behalf of a young man who faced a five-year to life sentence for selling marijuana. She had noted that she knew marijuana wasn’t harmful because she had smoked it for 18 years on a daily basis without any notable damage to herself or anyone else. The issue received national attention including an article in Life Magazine.

Brennan set up a Montessori-type school that the children named Not School. Children were encouraged to pursue subjects that captured their imagination. Education was slipped in as part of the process. “We had displays, supplies, books, and tests,” Maura McCoy remembers. “She was a professional educator and a great person to have there.” Brennan had been known as a “beloved teacher” at the Nicasio School according to the Life magazine article.

Extensive freedom was granted to the children. If you wanted to skip school or go to town, okay. If you wanted smoke pot or try LSD, okay. If you wanted to ride horses, go swimming, or go for a walk in the woods, it was your choice. You were even allowed to pick your own bedtime. (After all, how could you go to sleep with the Grateful Dead playing music in your front yard or living room?) And, if you wanted to run around naked— well that was okay, too. Understandably, some people would and did condemn the freedom, lack of structure and use of drugs as a form of abuse. For the most part, however, the children who spent two years of their life growing up at Olompali remember the experience as fun and filled with loving support. They even took delight in going into Novato and being the “Hippie Kids.”

Not surprisingly, the media pounced on the commune. It was big news: pot-smoking hippies ran around naked and baked bread while grooving out to music produced by the Grateful Dead. They labeled Rancho Olompali as the White House of Hippiedom and Don was their guru, the supreme Hippie. They also recorded the bad times. A horse escaped, ran out on Highway 101, and caused an accident that killed a trucker. There were two raids to seize drugs. Faulty wires caused a fire that gutted the mansion.

Don McCoy. (Archival photo.)

Don McCoy. (Archival photo.)

Don’s family, concerned about how life on the commune was affecting the children, obtained a conservatorship that took away custody of his children and stopped the flow of money. He ended up in the hospital suffering from physical and mental illness.

The final straw for the Chosen Family was that two of the commune’s children, cycling around the half empty swimming pool, fell in and died. With the death of the children, the commune died as well, its utopian dream snuffed out. The University of San Francisco, who still owned the property, evicted the Chosen Family and set about selling it to a developer who was planning on turning Olompali into condos and a trailer park, an inglorious ending to a fascinating history. But it wasn’t the end of the story.

Olompali was saved by a coin, not just any coin, but an English sixpence found on the property that traced the area’s history all the way back to the initial contact between the Miwoks and Sir Francis Drake. Plans for the trailer park were dropped. Marin Open Space, working with the State of California, obtained the property in 1977 and turned it into Olompali State Park.

Final Notes: Maura McCoy, along with another former member of the commune, Noelle Olompali-Barton, is now making a documentary about the commune. As Noelle says, “We have a lot of colorful history.” Their Facebook page is worth a visit. Scroll down and check out the trailer for the documentary.

NEXT BLOGS: Peggy (my wife) will do several guest blogs on her recent trip to England where she visited a number of gardens and estates, starting with Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle.)

Houseboats, Hippies and Haight-Ashbury… Olompali Part IV

Don McCoy would create one of the first modern houseboat communities in Sausalito California in the years before he created the Chosen Family commune at Olompali. A large, thriving community of houseboats still exists in Sausalito.

Don McCoy would create one of the first modern houseboat communities in Sausalito, California in the years before he created the Chosen Family commune at Olompali. A large, thriving community of houseboats still exists in Sausalito.

“I felt we were chosen for something. I thought we were going to create a new society. I thought we were going to change the world, or create a new way of life, a new way of doing things, a new way of living together, getting along in a peaceful world.” —Don McCoy, founder of the Chosen Family. It would be hard to find a statement that better summarizes the hope surrounding ‘The Age of Aquarius’ that seemed so tantalizingly close in the 60s, but was ever so far away.

“The failure to curb personal indulgence was a major collective error. Our journeys down the path (of extensive drug use)… disordered our senses, senselessly wasted young lives, and often sabotaged what we labored so diligently to construct. … It is the artist’s responsibility to manifest sanity and health—something we did not fully understand.” Peter Coyote— Co-founder of the Digger Movement in San Francisco, and friend of Paula McCoy. He would go on to become chair of the California Art’s Council under Jerry Brown, a popular actor (think ET), and a Zen advocate.

“I was definitely exposed to different ways of thought, to people who had yearning for peaceful ways of living, collectively with others. It gave me a more liberal and progressive outlook on life in general, introduced me to organic foods, to eastern religion, to farming, to alternative theater.  Maybe today that sounds almost mainstream, but we were really counterculture then.” Maura McCoy, daughter of Paula and Don, who is presently finishing up a documentary on The Chosen Family that Peter Coyote will narrate.


“What I remember about Thanksgiving dinners at Uncle Bud’s was that they were always loud— boisterous in a positive, friendly way,” my brother-in-law Jim told me, as his mind reached back to his childhood in the 40s and early 50s. Jim is married to Peggy’s sister, Jane. Bud Carrington was Jim’s uncle and Paula McCoy’s father, so Paula was his cousin. Maura is her daughter. Paula would have been part of the boisterous Thanksgiving holidays.

What Jane and Jim recall of the 60s and 70s hippie culture in San Francisco was the darkness of the drug scene that Peter Coyote referred to. It would lead to Paula’s early death. Understandably, they see the Chosen Family, the Diggers, and the Summer of Love in the light of Paula’s shortened life.

My own perspective of the time is somewhat different. My stint at Berkeley was from 1963 to 65, when the Bay Area rock music scene was in its formative stages. Herb Caen had yet to make the word ‘hippies’ part of our every day vocabulary. The Free Speech Movement, Peace Corps, graduation, and marriage dominated my thinking. My awareness of ‘hip’ hadn’t travelled beyond the Beatniks. (I was curious enough about the Beats, however, to make a pilgrimage across the Bay to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore.)

I was in the final months of my Peace Corps assignment in Liberia in July of 1967 when I first became aware of the Summer of Love. A new group of Volunteers hosted a party in Tapeta. A large sign claiming Haight-Asbury Africa greeted us on the edge of town. There wasn’t any LSD (at least that I was aware of), but Liberia’s Club Beer ran freely. And the Bush Devil was there. He seemed to fit right in. Any of the 60’s rock groups would have been delighted to have him shuffle across their stage. (If you want to learn more about the Bush Devil, check out my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam, on Amazon.)

By the summer of 1968, I was Director of Peace Corps Recruiting and Public Affairs for Northern California and Northern Nevada. While my territory didn’t cover San Francisco, I travelled into the city on a monthly basis for staff meetings. Out of curiosity I wandered over to Haight-Asbury, which had already lost its luster. I also spent much of my time on college campuses, and some, especially Sonoma State— just up Highway 101 from Olompali, closely reflected what was happening in the more open society of the times. I was drawn to the sense of exploration and freedom the lifestyle offered. My feelings could have easily carried me in that direction, but I got caught up in the world of environmental action instead. “Tune in, Turn on, Drop out” never became part of my vocabulary. But, back to the McCoys.

In 1961, Don and Paula McCoy moved from Southern California to Marin County and Don started an investment property and construction company with his brother Douglas. Within two years they were busily developing Sausalito’s first modern houseboat community at the Sausalito heliport on Richardson Bay. Houseboat living, apparently, had great appeal to artists and musicians. A young Bill Cosby rented a space at the development and Otis Reading used one of Don’s houseboats as an escape from San Francisco. Otis used his stay as inspiration for the hit songSitting on the Dock of the Bay.” A warehouse that Don owned at the Heliport also became a popular rehearsal space for local bands including the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, and Quicksilver. Chicago apparently practiced there as well.

At some point, Don and Paula bought a house in San Francisco at 715 Ashbury Street. The Grateful Dead lived directly across the road at 710 Ashbury Street. A constant stream of people moved back and forth between the two Victorian houses.

Paula and Don divorced in September of 1977. I couldn’t find the reason, but given the couple’s close association with rock bands, drugs, and the era of free love, it isn’t hard to imagine. Whatever the reason, Don got the kids and within a couple of months he would be creating his commune at Olompali. Paula stayed at the house on Ashbury Street.

While this blog series is focused on Olompali, I broadened my research when I learned about the relationship between my brother-in-law and Paula. Her life in San Francisco was equally interesting to Don’s at the commune. 215 Ashbury became one of the focal points of Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love. Janis Joplin was so close by that she could stand out on her balcony and yell out to her neighbors at 215 and 210. Peter Coyote describes an incident where he was upstairs at Paula’s when Neal Cassady came out of the Dead’s house. Peter lobbed apples at him from the window and Cassady came over to visit and get high. Ken Kesey reportedly used the house to stop his car when he lost his brakes. Several people with close connections to the Dead actually lived at Paula’s. This included Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelly, who would earn fame for their psychedelic Grateful Dead poster art and album covers.

A photo of Paula McCoy wearing her fur coat taken by Peter Coyote.

A photo of Paula McCoy wearing her fur coat taken by Peter Coyote.

715 Asbury Street also became a gathering point for the Hell’s Angels and Diggers. The Angels had developed an early relationship with the Pranksters during the acid tests and this relationship extended to the Dead. Two Angels, Frisco Pete Knell, president of the San Francisco Chapter of the Hells Angels, and Billy “Sweet William” Fritsch, even accompanied the Grateful Dead, Paula, Ken Kesey, and Peter Coyote on a mission to London to meet with the Beatles in 1968. The Dead were concerned about whether the Beatles had a social conscience and were ‘socially adventurous.’ While the Dead found the Beatles more focused on making money than making change, the Beatles found the Dead scary, which is no surprise, considering Knell smashed one of their staff in the nose because Christmas dinner was late. Lennon was present to witness this episode and Coyote had to use his diplomatic skills to calm John down.

Paula and Coyote were invited on the journey because of their close connection with the Dead and with the anarchic Diggers, who were major players in San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury’s 1967 Summer of Love. Coyote, who went by his birth name at the time, Peter Cohon, was one of the founders of the Diggers, along with Emmett Grogan and Peter Berg. Free is the word that best describes what the Diggers did during the summer of 1967 when up to 100,000 young people (hippies/flower children) descended on Haight-Ashbury with little more than the clothes on their backs. The Diggers operated a free store and health clinic, provided free crash pads, gave away free bread in Golden Gate Park (much of which was baked at Olompali), and performed free, radical theater events on the streets and in the parks of the city. (Both Coyote and Berg had been members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.)

The Diggers would distribute thousands of loaves of bread, baked in a coffee can like this.

The Diggers would distribute thousands of loaves of bread, baked in a coffee can like this.

The Diggers were always welcome at 215 Ashbury. Coyote referred to Paula as the doyen of the Diggers and Vanity Fair described her as the group’s patron. Either way, she played an important role in the Diggers’ loose knit organization, the Summer of Love, and what came afterwards. (Imagine being able to say, “Oh, I went off with the Grateful Dead to meet with the Beatles and discuss their social conscience.”) Paula also became part of the dark side of the 60s counter-culture, the use of hard drugs. Coyote blames Emmett Grogan for introducing Paula to heroin. A woman commenting in the March 15, 2003 Digger Archives confirms this observation:

“Emmett was a junkie. Every woman he got involved with, perhaps his last wife being the exception, ended up strung out right along with him, big time. He left a wake and it amazed me some of the women that gave in. Not all of them lived through it. Paula McCoy being a prime example. She was the most intelligent high-toned woman in the scene. God was she smart and politically hip. I never in a million years could have seen those two together.”

But give in she did, and in 1976 the addiction plus ‘a drug deal gone bad’ would lead to her death in San Rafael. As Coyote would note “The Sixties turned into the Seventies and the hard-life changed a lot of things. A lot of friends died: Tracy, Marcus, Bill Lyndon, Billy Batman, Pete Knell, and Paula McCoy. The list is longer than I have the heart to type.”

Emmett Grogan died of an overdose in 1978.

NEXT BLOG: Olompali… the final chapter.

From Miwoks to Ewoks— Plus the Bear Flag Revolt… Olompali: Part II

I found this ancient fence at Olompali State Park. It was likely built by the Black/Burdell Families who owned the property between 1852 and 1940.

I found this ancient fence at Olompali State Park north of San Francisco. It was likely built by the Black/Burdell Families who owned the property between 1852 and 1940.

After 3000 years of relative stability under the Miwoks, the fate of Olompali entered a period of rapid change in the 1800s. Mexican Independence in 1821 signaled the beginning of the end for the mission system in California. By 1834, the Mexican government had decreed that the missions would be secularized. The priests would no longer control vast estates.

It was the intention of the Mexican government to give the mission land to the Native Americans, but this intention was quickly subverted. Californios, California born people of Spanish/Mexican descent, either bamboozled the Indians out of their land or seized it outright for their own use, and then initiated a campaign of terror, stealing whatever the Indians had left— including, on occasion, their freedom.

An interesting exception to the mistreatment of the Miwoks took place at Olompali where, in 1843, the Miwok chief, Camilo Ynitia, was awarded a Mexican land grant. (Ynitia was the only Native American in California to receive one.) His father had built the first adobe house north of San Francisco. Portions of the house, along with Camilo’s, still stand at the park.

Remnants of Camilo's adobe house, and that of his father, still stand at Olompali State Park.

Remnants of Camilo Ynitia’s  adobe house, and that of his father, still stand at Olompali State Park.

Ynitia’s Rancho would soon play a role in the Bear Flag Revolt. With encouragement from John C. Fremont, the explorer and future US presidential candidate, a small band of American settlers in Northern California revolted against Mexican rule in 1846. The revolt was short-lived and only one person was killed, which is hard to imagine in any revolution. The point here is that the person was killed at Olompali in a clash between the settlers and Californios.

With bloodless coups in San Francisco and Monterey, Fremont and his followers soon afterwards declared California a republic. A quick flag was created featuring a grizzly bear, a star, and the word Republic. The fledgling country lasted three weeks; the Mexican-American War made it irrelevant. All that is left of the revolution today is the flag. It still flies over California even though there is no republic— or grizzly bear for that matter. The last known grizzly in California was killed in 1922.

The California flag, adopted during the three week existence of the Bear Flag Revolt.

The flag from the three-week republic still flies over California as the California state flag. The hump back of the bear is a defining characteristic of the grizzly bear. I once had a guy like this stalk me in Alaska. It was sneaking through the brush when I spotted its hump.

In 1852 Ynitia sold most of his land to James Black, who was on his way to becoming one of the largest landowners in Marin County. Legend is that robbers killed Ynitia for the money he received, or that he buried the money on the Olompali property, or that members of his own tribe did him in the old-fashioned way, with an arrow. Whatever happened, our history of Olompali now leaves the Miwoks and Californios, and moves into modern times.

Before leaving the Miwoks, I did want to pass on one more bit of trivia I picked up doing research. George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch is located in Marin County, not far from Olompali. Nearby redwood forests were used for some of the Star Wars scenes for the forest moon of Endor, where the Ewoks lived. Lucas reportedly used the Miwok name as inspiration for the Ewok name.

Sky Walker Ranch is appropriately located on Lucas Valley Road. (The road was there before George Lucas built his ranch there, however. Maybe the road inspired Lucas's choice.)

Skywalker Ranch is appropriately located on Lucas Valley Road. (The road was there before George Lucas built his ranch, however. Maybe the road inspired his choice.)

Black, and his family, through various convolutions, would own the land up to the 1940s. Black gave the land to his daughter Mary as a wedding present when she married Galen Burdell, a dentist. But when Black’s wife died in Burdell’s dentist chair, he reneged on the gift and took Mary and Galen out of his will. When Mary first saw the will after Black’s death, she allegedly ripped her dad’s signature off  with her teeth and ate it. Tough woman. She then hired a bevy of top lawyers and managed to obtain Olompali.

A barn built by the Burdells and other ranch structures still stand at Olompali Park. And I have a weakness for old barns. (grin)

A barn, built by the Burdells, still stands at Olompali Park.  I think the massive stump on the left  is from a eucalyptus tree. Old barns demand being photographed; I couldn’t resist…


A corner shot of the barn looking up for a different perspective.

A corner shot of the barn looking up for a different perspective.

This old, boarded up window on the barn had personality plus. Animals must have chewed away at the right side.

This old, boarded-up window on the barn had personality plus. Animals must have chewed away at the right side.

Reflections caught in one the barn's windows.

A reflection, caught in one the barn’s windows, showed the ‘salt block’ house next door.

This salt block house

Salt block houses like this with their steep and sloped roofs were commonly built throughout Northern California in the 1850s. With the exception of the adobe houses, this may be the oldest structure at Olompali.

Remnants of an extensive fruit orchard planted by the Burdells still remain. It was said that their oranges matched anything coming out of Southern California. Bananas— not so good.

Remnants of an extensive fruit orchard planted by the Burdells still remain. It was said that their oranges matched anything coming out of Southern California. Bananas— not so good.

This large rock with its gorgeous backdrop above the barn caught my attention.

This large rock with its gorgeous backdrop was above the barn.

Camilo Ynitia, Miwok chief, received Olompali as a Mexican Land grant and in turn sold it to James Black.

I thought I would conclude with this close up of the fence I featured at the top of my post…

And this aptly named Fence Lizard I found sunning itself on the fence.

…And this aptly named Western fence lizard sunning itself on the fence.

NEXT BLOG: By the late 40s/early 50s, the University of San Francisco had obtained Olompali with plans to turn the ranch into a retreat for Jesuits. The effort failed. Maybe the Jesuits didn’t go along with the plan. It was this lack of success, however, that eventually led Olompali to become a footnote in the history of the Grateful Dead, as well as a famous/infamous hippie commune: The Chosen Family. But that is a story for my next blog.



1964— The Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley… A Student Revolution: Part I

Wrinkled and showing signs of age, this is the original sign I carried in December of 1964 when the police occupied UC Berkeley and participants in the Sproul Hall Sit-in were arrested.

Wrinkled and showing signs of age, this is the original sign I carried in December of 1964 when the police occupied UC Berkeley and participants in the Sproul Hall Sit-in were arrested.

A large celebration is taking place at the University of California, Berkeley on October 4th to mark the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, one of the world’s most important student revolutions. From 1963-65 I was a student at Berkeley and had a front row seat. Unfortunately, I can’t attend the celebration this weekend due to prior commitments. To honor the event and share my perspective, however, I will use earlier writings I have done on the Free Speech Movement to post three blogs over the next three days.

In the fall of 1963, I transferred from Sierra College, a small community college in the Sacramento Valley of California, to the University of California at Berkeley. Sierra was like driving down a country road on a lazy summer day; Berkeley was like being caught on a six-lane Los Angeles freeway during rush hour.

Telegraph Avenue became my mecca. Exotic smells emanated from a dozen different ethnic restaurants while numerous languages assaulted my ears. I quickly discovered the Café Mediterraneum. In an era before Starbucks made coffee houses safe for middle-class America, Café Med was an original. It was a microcosm of the Berkeley I would come to love, filled with offbeat characters, esoteric discussions and great coffee. I became addicted to both the cappuccino and atmosphere. I would grab my coffee and climb the narrow wooden stairs in back for a coveted balcony seat where I would watch the ebb and flow of the city’s unique flotsam.

A quick jaunt across Telegraph produced another treasure, Cody’s bookstore. Started on a shoestring by the Cody family in the 50s, it had become one of America’s premier bookstores by the mid-sixties. I saved my explorations for Saturdays when there was time to indulge my passion for books. I would disappear inside and become lost to everything except the next title.

I was equally fascinated by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of soapbox oratory provided at the south entrance to the campus on the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph. During any given hour, a dozen speakers could be found there espousing as many causes. I considered it high entertainment and would sit on the steps of the Student Union and listen during breaks from my studies. Over one lunch period, I reported in a letter home, I listened to a student who had spent her summer working in the South registering voters, a black South African talking about apartheid, a socialist railing against the evils of capitalism, a capitalist railing against the evils of socialism, and a Bible thumper detailing out the many paths Berkeley students were following to hell.

Many of the speakers urged that there was more to college life than studies, football and parties. Change was in the wind and we should be part of it. Work for fair housing in Berkeley; oppose the unfair hiring practices at Safeway; sign up to help on a political campaign. Join CORE, SNCC, SLATE, SDS, YAF or a world of other acronyms. I struggled to take it all in, absorb it through my pores. It certainly wasn’t Kansas, Dorothy, nor was it Sierra College or the small Sierra foothill town of Diamond Springs where I was raised. I attended classes at Berkeley that had more students than the total population of Diamond and were close in size to matching Sierra’s full student body.

To simplify my first year I opted to live in a college dorm. I would have a room, a bed and regular meals. The University assigned me to Priestly Hall, which was ideally located a block away from campus and a block away from Telegraph Avenue. As for life at Berkeley, I wanted it all. There were student politics to jump into, classes to master, a love life to support, bookstores to explore, cappuccino to consume, and a thousand causes to sort out. Moderation was not an option.

It was easy to be overwhelmed. I was assigned 15 books in one class and actually thought I was expected to buy and read each one in detail. I was a fast reader but not that fast, nor that wealthy. It would take a year to master the art of skimming, buying old books, using commercially prepared notes and pursuing all of the other tricks of the trade that getting a higher education entailed. For all of that, there was an excitement to the classes. I might be sharing my professor with a thousand other students but he or she might also be a person who was a confidante of Presidents.

I had been student body president at Sierra and gamely jumped into student politics at Berkeley. The dormitories were new, so the residents were new. They hadn’t had time to get to know each other. The fact that I was a community college transfer made little difference. Within a week of my arrival, I was president of Priestly Hall.

Student politics seemed dull and almost frivolous compared to the real thing, though. What truly fascinated me about Berkeley was the palpable sense of being involved in the events of the day. I was drawn toward these issues and the call to action tweaked my interest. Limiting the future of a person because of his or her skin color, sex, or religion went beyond being counterproductive. It was stupid; we all lost. But I wasn’t ready to take up a picket sign. This was my first year at Berkeley and my hands were full with studying.

I did strike one tiny tap hammer blow against Berkeley’s depersonalized approach to undergraduate education, however. Our dorm was expected to participate in the annual Ugly Man Contest. Its purpose was to raise money for charity by having someone or thing really ugly as the dorm’s representative in competition with other dorms, fraternities and sororities. People would vote by donating money (normally pennies) to their favorite ugly man. In addition to being pure fun, it was on the top of the Dean’s list as an acceptable student activity.

I proposed that our ‘Ugly Man’ be an unfortunate Joe College Student whose computer card had been lost by the Administration. Consequently, he no longer existed. Early computers used punched cards to contain data and had become ubiquitous in our lives. They came with the warning “do not fold, spindle or mutilate.”

We made up a casket and wandered about campus in search of poor Joe. It was a small thing but it reflected a growing unease I had about the alienation that happens when numbers became more important than individuals. Apparently the student body wasn’t ready for the message. A popular bartender, selected by a fraternity as its ugly man candidate, walked away with the prize.

While my concerns about assembly line education were evolving, the administration was monitoring off-campus student activism with growing concern. The University perceived its primary objectives as carrying out research and preparing young people to become productive members of American society. There was little room in this view for students seeking social and political change— in Mississippi, in Oakland or on campus.

But the world was changing. A young President in Washington was calling on the youth of America to become involved and had created the Peace Corps to encourage involvement. Racial equality seemed attainable in the United States, and people the world over were yearning for and demanding freedom. It was easy for idealistic young Americans to believe we were at the dawning of a new age and natural to want to be involved in the transformation.

Had the students restricted their political efforts in the early and mid sixties to the far off South, the eruption of conflict on the Berkeley Campus may not have taken place. But they chose local targets as well. When the students marched off campus to picket the Oakland Tribune, Sheraton Hotel, United Airways and Safeway over discriminatory hiring practices, they were challenging locally established businesses with considerable power. Not surprisingly, these businesses felt threatened and fought back. Rather than deal with the existing discrimination, they demanded that the University, local authorities, the state government and even the federal government do whatever was necessary to reign in the protesters.

Their arguments for the crackdown were typical of the times. A few radical off-campus agitators with Communist connections were working in conjunction with left leaning professors to stir up trouble. The participating students lacked mature judgment and were naively being led astray. The vast majority of students were good law-abiding kids who just wanted to get an education, party, and get a paycheck.

The University was caught between the proverbial rock and a very hard place. The off-campus political activism was creating unwanted attention. Public dollars could be lost and reputations tarnished. There was a justifiable fear of reprisal from the right. The ugliness of McCarthyism was still alive and well in America. Only a few years before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had held hearings in San Francisco in its ceaseless search for Commies. UC had been a target.

HUAC created a deep paranoia and distrust within society and may indeed have constituted the most un-American type of activity ever perpetrated on the American public. Clark Kerr and others had worked hard to protect and restore the academic freedom on campus that loyalty oaths and other McCarthy-like activities had threatened. Student activism might refocus right-wing attention on the Berkeley Campus.

My greatest insight into the mindset of the Administration was when the Dean of Students called student leaders together to discuss the growing unrest on campus. Our gathering included members of the student government and presidents of the resident halls, fraternities and sororities. Noticeable in their absence were student representatives from off campus organizations such as CORE, SNCC, Young Democrats, Young Republicans and other activist groups. We sat in a large room in a huge square; there must have been at least 40 of us. I was eager to participate and imagined an open discussion of the issues.

The Dean welcomed us, thanked us for agreeing to participate, and then laid the foundation for our discussion. A small group of radical students was disrupting the campus and organizing off-campus activities such as picketing and sit-ins that were illegal in nature. While the issues being addressed were important, there were other, more appropriate means available for solving them that did not involve Berkeley. The Administration had been extremely tolerant so far but was approaching a point where it might have to crack down for the overall good of the University.

The Administration wanted our feedback as student leaders. What did we think was happening, how would our constituencies react to a crack down, and how could we help defuse the situation? We were to go around the room with each student leader expressing his or her view. I expected a major reaction— hopefully a protest or at least a warning to move cautiously, to involve all parties in seeking some type of amenable agreement.

The first student leader stood up. “The radical students are making me extremely angry,” he reported. “I resent that a small group of people can ruin everything for the rest of us. The vast majority of the students do not support off-campus political action. I believe the student body would support a crackdown by the Administration. You have my support in whatever you do.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. Was the guy a plant, preprogrammed by the Administration to repeat the party line and set the tone for everyone else? If so, he was successful. The next person and the next person parroted what he had said. I began to doubt myself. Normally, I am quite good at reading political trends and sensing when a group leans toward supporting or opposing an issue. My read on what was happening at Bancroft and Telegraph was that the majority of the students were empathic with and supportive of the causes the so-called radical students were advocating.

The Martin Luther Kings of the world were heroes, not bad guys, and their tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience were empowering the powerless. Sure, the majority of the students were primarily concerned with getting through college. To many, an all night kegger and getting laid might seem infinitely more appealing than a sit-in. But this did not imply a lack of shared concern. Or so I believed. Apparently, very few of the other participants shared in my belief. Concerns were raised but no one stopped and said, “Damn it, we have a problem!”

As my turn approached I felt myself chickening out. I was the new kid on the block, wet behind the ears. What did I know? Acceptance in this crowd was to stand up and say, “Yes, everything you are talking about is true. Let’s clamp down on the rabble rousers and get on with the important life of being students.” And I wanted to be accepted, to be a part of the establishment. I stood up with shaking legs.

“Hi, my name is Curt Mekemson and I am the president of Priestly Hall,” I announced in a voice which was matching my legs, shake for shake. This was not the impression I wanted to make. As others had spoken, I had scribbled some notes on what I wanted to say. “I believe we have a very serious problem here, that the issues are legitimate, and that most students are sympathetic. I don’t think we should be cracking down but should be working together to find solutions. Now is not the time to further alienate the activists and create more of a crisis than we presently have. I believe it is a serious mistake to not have representatives from the groups involved in organizing off campus activities here today.”

I was met with deadly silence. A few heads nodded in agreement, but mainly there were glares. “Next,” the Dean said. No yea, no nay, no discussion. I was a bringer of bad tidings, a storm crow. But it wasn’t ‘kill the messenger.’ It was more like ‘ignore the messenger,’ like I had farted in public and people were embarrassed.

After that, my enthusiasm for student government waned. I should have fought back, fought for what I believed in, fought for what I knew deep down to be right. But I didn’t. I was still trying to figure out what to do with 15 books in Poly Sci 1. I had a relationship to maintain on campus and a mother fighting cancer at home. The dark, heavy veil of depression rolled over my mind like the fog rolling in from the Bay. Finally I decided that something had to go and that the only thing expendable was my role as President of the dorm. So I turned over the reins of power to my VP and headed back to Bancroft Library. Politics could wait.

Without student government concerns, Berkeley became more doable and even fun. I disappeared into the library for long hours whipping out term papers, devouring books and becoming a serious student. The end of my first semester approached. Christmas vacation was coming. There would be a break in the endless studies and a time for long walks in the woods. Maybe I could get my head around what was happening on campus and where I fit into the scheme of things.

One crisp fall day in November I came blinking out of the library to a brilliant sun and a hushed silence. Students and faculty were emptying out of classes; a young woman with long dark hair was standing on the library steps, tears streaming down her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“They’ve shot the President in Dallas,” she replied as her voice broke.

John F. Kennedy was dead. It was November 23, 1963. The young president who was standing up against racism in the South, the man who had created the Peace Corps, who called for international justice and inflamed people’s hopes worldwide, had been shot down in the streets of Dallas. And with his death, some of the hope he had created died with him; it died on the Berkeley Campus that day and it died in me. Each of us lost something of the dream that things could be better, that we as individuals could be better. School stopped and we headed for the nearest TVs, newspapers and radio stations. Time and again we watched the car speeding away with the wounded President, watched Walter Cronkite announce that the President was dead and watched as Lyndon Johnson was sworn in. It was a day etched into the collective memory of our generation.

Thanksgiving arrived and Christmas followed. The battle between the Administration and the student activists continued during the spring semester while I focused on studies. On March 3, 1964, I turned 21 and became, according to law, an adult. Soon I would have to decide what I was going to do with my adult life.

NEXT BLOG: 1964: On the edge of radicalism