Category Archives: Personal

Move over, Sarah Palin: Wheels of Change is Coming After You

Vallejo pic

Sarah Palin’s new book, Going Rogue, is coming out Nov. 17, nine days after the official publication date of Wheels of Change: From Zero to 600 M.P.H., The Amazing Story of California and the Automobile. Is the timing of the release of Palin’s instant bestseller a vast conspiracy to draw attention away from my book? How else can you explain the fact that I’ve been sitting patiently, and fruitlessly, by the phone all day waiting for Oprah to call but then I hear that she has booked Palin to be a guest on her show rather than me?

Oh well, Wheels of Change is not yet in bookstores but we’re starting to get a good buzz going, starting with a nice interview with me in the electronic newsletter of Heyday Books. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Favorite place to eat?
Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank on Friday night hot rod nights. Cool customs and bikes pour in from all over, and the sounds of the engines make your ears hurt. It’s a slice of 1959 in 2009.

Proudest achievement?
Not killing myself when I was a stupid teen driver wheeling around the streets of Hayward and spinning donuts on the lawns of schools.

Scariest moment?
On a trip to Lake Tahoe two winters ago, we drove over Donner Summit on I-80 in the teeth of a howling snowstorm. It was a near-total white-out. We couldn’t see two feet in front of us. Thank God my wife was driving. I was a pathetic, sniveling wretch in the passenger seat.

First car you ever owned?
A British-made Austin America. It was possibly the worst car ever made. If I had to get somewhere fast or on time, it had a built-in electronic sensor that told the engine not to start.

An article about me and the book, entitled “Author Hopes Book Signings Are Standing Vrroom Only,” appeared in today’s Vallejo Times-Herald, promoting my upcoming appearances at Bookshop Benicia (Nov. 8) and the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum (Nov. 14). The photo above accompanied the article, with me sitting in the front seat of a ’57 convertible Cadillac, which is owned by a local car collector who stores it in a warehouse.

Close observers of my interview in Heyday and Rich Freedman’s article in the Times-Herald will notice that I made a similar joke in both forums about that truly awful Austin America. This is what happens to all authors (including Sarah Palin, when she starts hitting the circuit). You find a line, it works for you, and you keep using it. Author talks are sort of performance art, albeit a very, very minor form of it.

I also did an interview Thursday with Eric Tomb, the host of “Booktown” on KVBR-FM in Nevada City, promoting an Oct. 28 appearance at The Book Seller in Grass Valley. The interview was taped at 7:30 a.m., and I believe I did not make the Austin America joke although I’m not really sure because I was half-asleep and unclear about what I was saying most of the time. Eric, who has been the radio host of “Booktown” for ten years, covered for me though, and I was fascinated to hear about the technology he uses.

He called me (he was at his home in Nevada City) on Skype, and recorded the interview into his Mac with Audiohijack software. Using an audio-editing software program called Amadeus, he takes my ramblings and through the miracle of modern technology, turns them into brilliant and insightful analysis of the history of automobiles in California. As of this writing, the program had not yet aired, but when it does, you will be the first to know. Count on it!

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Hayward, California, Personal, Wheels of Change

Bob Berndt: Counselor, Teacher, Friend

Bob Berndt

Bob Berndt, who had a generous nature, would not have approved of this piece. A private man, he did not like a fuss to be made about him, even in death. As far as I know, there was no memorial service after his death this past July. There may not have been even an obituary in the paper. These were likely according to his wishes.

Mr. Berndt was my high school counselor, teacher and friend, as he was for the many hundreds of other students he taught over the years. He was a social studies teacher at Hayward High. Throughout his life he loved and believed in education and after he retired, he volunteered as a docent at the Oakland Museum, among other activities. I believe he was in his early eighties when he died. A friend and former colleague of his at Hayward, Jeanne Lycett, sent me this note after I asked her about a service:

Yes, it really is too bad about Bob [she writes]. I had him over on the 4th of July for the past few years and it was great to reconnect with him.  Every Tuesday, Bob would meet for lunch with some of the other “Old Guys” (Dick Schultz, Georger Enderlin – 90 and still driving!, and Bob Giester.)  About twice a year, I was invited to join them and it was great fun. When Bob (Berndt) didn’t show up at last Tuesday’s lunch, Giester called and found that he had passed away that very day. As for an obit or a service of any kind, I haven’t heard anything. Bob was from Southern Illinois, and, I think, may have had a niece still in that area.  He also had absolutely NO religious beliefs, so I’m not sure if there will be anything.

As I recall Mr. Berndt and I never talked religion, but we certainly did talk about lots of other things. In my senior year at Hayward he arranged a special independent study class for me in which I was the sole student and he was the teacher, at least in name. He didn’t do much teaching in that class, and that was the point of it. The purpose of the class was for me to write, on my own, with only occasional guidance from him. The class was third period. When the bell rang and the rest of the students at Hayward gloomily trudged off to their teacher-led classes, I skipped off happily wherever I wished.

Sometimes I went to the library. More often I headed off to the parking lot to find Dave Costa or someone else who didn’t have class that period and who wanted to grab a bite at Quarter Pounder or create some other mischief off campus. Needless to say, I screwed around a lot in my independent study class. This would come as no shock to Mr. Berndt, who surely would have expected it. But I also read a lot during that time. And I wrote. I wrote about a writing hero of mine, George Orwell, and his book, Homage to Catalonia, about the Spanish Civil War. I wrote about my adventures as a pearl diver at Banchero’s Restaurant (memories of which can be found in this post and that one), and I wrote another longer piece about a forty-mile, late winter snowshoe trip I took to Ten Lakes in the Yosemite wilderness with Gordy Kulis, Tom Coopman and Allan Plougher. A few days after I turned in the Yosemite piece Mr. Berndt approached me and said, “I enjoyed my trip to Ten Lakes.”

The class in an inadvertent way-inadvertent to me, though not to Mr. Berndt, I’m sure-taught me a little about managing my time and a little about responsibility, and I’ve never forgotten the trust he placed in me.

Steve Bragonier, a successful Silicon Valley financial executive who has worked at Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, and other firms, was also a student of Mr. Berndt’s. “He was my teacher and my counselor,” Steve wrote me after hearing about his death. “I felt lucky to be in his class. He guided me to junior college and then on to Stanford rather than going straight to a state college. I’m not sure why he did that (probably my maturity level) but it was good advice in retrospect. I remember he had us keep a journal when we were freshmen. We also kept a journal when we were seniors. Sometime during our senior year he gave us both journals so we could see how much we had changed and matured in four years. I wish I had that journal to read today.”

No doubt many other students of Mr. Berndt’s could tell similar stories of how he had influenced them. That’s the way it is with teachers; they change lives. I am sure that if a service had been held to mark his passing, and all the students he had helped in his years of teaching had shown up, every seat in the place would have been filled and there would have been lines of people stretching for blocks outside. This is probably true of every teacher, the good ones anyhow.

Donations may be made in his memory to the Hayward Public Library, Stanford School of Education, Oakland Museum of California, and the Nature Conservancy, all causes and institutions Mr. Berndt believed in.

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Believe Me, I’m Getting to Mr. Berndt, But First One More Digression (Part 2)

Quarter Pounder

When last you heard from me, I was in the passenger seat of Donnie Schroer’s VW bug with the magnesium alloy wheels, screaming wildly around the back streets of Hayward chasing after the hard-driving would-be paramour of Dorothy, Donnie’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. (I have since learned that her real name was Debbie, but for consistency’s sake I’ll keep calling her Dorothy.) It was one or two in the morning, and the reason for this spirited chase-well, there was no reason, not a logical one anyhow, except that Donnie was crazy in love with Dorothy and crazy-jealous too. On a late-night stakeout we had caught Dorothy on a date with another guy, who had dropped her off at her house and screeched off down the street with us hard on his tailpipe.

I’m not sure what would have happened if we had caught him but fortunately, we never got the chance to find out. He rapidly ditched us, leaving us nowhere else to turn but to the place we always turned after a long night of cruising the empty streets of Hayward: Quarter Pounder on Mission.

Quarter Pounder, as it was known, may have been the original inspiration for the term “greasy spoon.” Located next to the Hayward Plunge, it was popular with bikers, car salesmen, winos, and teenage roamers such as Donnie and me. You could get takeout at Quarter Pounder, or you could go inside and sit at a small counter with stools where you could watch the cook, adorned in an apron stained black from the grease, fry up slabs of ground meat on the grill. Another person made the fries and milkshakes. While you waited for your food you flipped through the selections on a countertop jukebox. The songs were listed on flip cards inside the jukebox. On the bottom were buttons and numbers that corresponded to the songs. It was three songs for a quarter, and you punched in the appropriate number and button for what you wanted to hear.

Considering Donnie’s state of mind that night, he might have chosen “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” by Hank Williams. He looked like he had missed both ends of a Daily Double and just ripped his tickets up. Besides staking out Dorothy’s house, playing the ponies at Bay Meadows was another of Donnie’s favorite pastimes. Somehow he and a couple of his gambling pals had figured out the world’s ballsiest way to sneak into the track, and he took me with him a few times. First we hopped a fence in the parking lot, and this put us into the paddock, the area where the horses were stabled between races. We walked past the horses being fed and groomed in their stalls until we came to a gate that led onto the track itself.horse

The day’s race card was already in progress. Waiting until after one race had finished and before the next one had begun, we stepped onto the dirt track and started walking. We were in full view of the thousands of people in the grandstands, two or three or four of us strolling as casually as possible along the rail on the first turn. We were engaged in a variation of Edgar Allan Poe’s maxim that the best place to hide something is in the most obvious spot. Clearly, the best way to sneak in somewhere is to do it when everyone is looking. I always expected a cop or someone to collar us but no one ever did. We swung open another gate and slipped into the grandstands where we sometimes saw a Hayward High teacher or two enjoying the sporting action as well.

Donnie and I hung out a lot during this time because we both worked at Banchero’s, he as a waiter and me as a dishwasher. Donnie had himself started as a dishwasher but he was now on more of an upward career trajectory, whereas I was stuck in the lowliest job in the place, constantly up to my ears in slop. I was astonished because people would order these colossal steak dinners on these jumbo plates with these giant baked potatoes overflowing with butter and sour cream and barely touch them. No exaggeration. They might take a bite or two of the steak before sending it away.

Then I’d have to deal with it, all that gorgeous family dining excess, soup and salad and steaks and potatoes and green beans and fettucini and lasagna and pies and coffee and milk being practically tossed at me by waiters who were as polite as Miss Manners to their customers but treated me like the stuff on the soles of their shoes. It was at least a thousand degrees in the kitchen. Sweat pouring off me, clad in rubber gloves and rubber boots, I tried in vain to keep up with the wave upon wave of food scraps being hurled at me, spraying the jumbo plates and bowls with a water nozzle that had more power than a fireman’s hose. I was never ahead, always behind. As soon as I cleared off my station and got the dishes in the dishwasher, another barrage came at me.

I ended up writing about pearl diving at Banchero’s-and other teen adventures–in a paper I did for Mr. Berndt, my counselor at Hayward High who died recently. That’s how all of these remembrances got started. I started thinking about that time in my life, and then I got sidetracked on these various subplots mostly involving Donnie Schroer (seen below, looking slick in his high school graduation picture). But I honestly don’t think Mr. Berndt would have minded. Ever have a teacher who was more than just a teacher but who touched your life in meaningful ways that you’ve never forgotten? Well, for me, Mr. Berndt was one of those teachers. Next time I promise to deliver that overdue tribute to him.

Donnie Schroer

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Pearl Diving at Banchero’s, and a Love Story (Part 1)

Kevin Nelson.CroppedI learned several weeks ago that my high school counselor and history teacher, Robert Berndt, had died, and in the way that memory can sometimes take you to strange places, it made me think of Banchero’s Restaurant on Mission Boulevard in Hayward.

Banchero’s is a family-style Italian restaurant that has been owned by the Banchero family since its founding in the years after World War II. I worked there as a dishwasher in my senior year in high school, when Mr. Berndt (I can only call him Mr. Berndt, never Bob or Robert) had me as a student.

I first heard that a dishwashing job had opened up at Banchero’s on a Saturday afternoon at the old Ritz Theater in Hayward where I was watching Jack Nicholson in “Hells Angels on Wheels.” You may not know this, but before his breakout role in “Easy Rider” Big Jack appeared in a score of lousy, dirt-cheap “B” westerns and motorcycle flicks. I must’ve seen all of them, at Saturday matinees at the Ritz, with nary a person in the theater but me.

“Hey Nelson,” said a voice in the darkness. “Nelson.”

I turned to see Donnie Schroer, my friend and basketball teammate whispering to me. Donnie was a genuinely great high school basketball player who had his quirks, as we all do. He drove a Volkswagen Beetle with mags, styled his hair with gel, and loved a girl named Dorothy. Actually, I’m not sure if Dorothy was her real name or not. What I am sure of, though, is how crazy jealous he was of her. Many a night we spent in front of her house, Donnie and me and maybe one or two other guys crammed into his bug, waiting for her to come home from wherever she happened to be. Donnie always suspected Dorothy of going out with other guys and wanted to catch her in the act of being dropped off after a date.

“Schroer?” I said. “Is that you?” “Yeah,” he said.

“What are you doing here?”

“I called your Mom. She told me you were here,” he said, still whispering, although we could have shouted at each other and no one would have cared because we were the only two people in the theater. “You want a job?”

We left Jack Nicholson causing drunken mayhem in his biker gang and went out to the lobby to talk about it.

Schroer, who worked at Banchero’s himself, explained that the former occupant of the dishwashing position had resigned to pursue other career options, leaving a vacancy. “But you gotta come now,” he said. “You start tonight.”

Although this was short notice, and I had to leave the theater before finding out how Jack Nicholson ended up his stint with the Hells Angels, I said yes. That night I started dishwashing (or “pearl diving,” as my mother called it) at Banchero’s, proudly joining the ranks of the many other East Bay boys who got their first job there.

I picked up another pearl-diving shift the next day and worked again the following Friday and Saturday nights, occasionally venturing out to bus tables in the main dining room but mainly staying out of sight in the overheated kitchen. It may have been after one of these nights at Banchero’s that Donnie took me on another late night stakeout of Dorothy’s house.

Most nights nothing ever happened. We sat there for maybe a half hour in the darkness of her street with the lights and radio of his car turned off, Donnie talking to me in that same conspiratorial whisper he had used that day at the Ritz. Donnie and Dorothy had what can be fairly described as a combustible relationship. They’d fight, break up, reunite, fight, break up, reunite, fight, break up, etc. But in one of those strange maladjustments that the male psyche is prone to, even when the two were not technically boyfriend and girlfriend Donnie expected her to be faithful to him, that is, not go out with other guys.

There was no logic to this. Donnie had many sterling qualities; logic, however, was not one of them, at least not when it came to Dorothy. So it came to pass that on this particular night we saw a pair of headlights coming down her street and stopping in front of her house. The lights and engine of the car clicked off. A moment passed. And then who should step out of the car but Dorothy!

I don’t recall the make of the car that dropped her off, but I am sure it was large, powerful and muscular, just like its driver. Donnie ignored Dorothy disappearing inside her front door and took off after her offending suitor. All of a sudden it’s like Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” only without the hills; we’re flying crazily around the flats of Hayward after this guy who’s got far more horsepower than us and probably a nine millimeter pistol in his glove compartment.

“What are you going to do if you catch him?” I’m saying in a panicky voice, but Donnie’s not listening, he’s just hell-bent on getting even with this guy who had the audacity to take out a girl he’s not even dating anymore, treat her to a nice evening and politely return her home, and at this point you may be wondering-

What the heck does this have to do with Mr. Berndt, a fine man who died and who was an early mentor of mine and a wonderful teacher to so many? Well, I’m getting to that, but because I don’t want to tax your patience with an over-long post, you’re going to have to tune in next time to hear about it.

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Randy Breckenridge, and a True Story of the Colorado River

Randy Breckenridge 1985_1I have a new book coming out next month, Wheels of Change, and it’s dedicated to Randy Breckenridge, who died under sad circumstances, at too young of an age. He lost a baby to SIDs, went through a tough divorce (is there ever an easy one?), grew estranged from many of his friends, and had his spirit roughed up by drugs and alcohol.

I met Randy at UCLA when we were both freshmen in the Rieber Hall dorm. We became fast friends because of a shared interest in mountains and rivers. He was a real river rat and an expert whitewater boatman who guided commercial rafting trips for the American River Touring Association (ARTA). Together we rafted the Stanislaus, South Fork of the American, Tuolumne, and the Big Daddy of all western rivers, the Colorado in the Grand Canyon.

If you ever get a chance to go down the Colorado on a raft, jump on it. It’s the Sistine Chapel of whitewater river experiences. My chance to raft the Colorado came when I was twenty and kicking around the country with no money, no job, and happy as a fellow could be. Randy was working for ARTA, and there was an opening for an assistant boatman for a two-week, oar-powered trip down the Grand. He invited me. Free of charge. Needless to say, I found time in my busy schedule to go. Rafting Colorado_1

The Colorado is a big, wide, fast desert river. Our trip covered more than 200 river miles, passing all the while through the amazing Technicolor walls of the Grand Canyon. Most surprising to me was how tropical it was. Down at the river, at the base of these ancient, incredibly beautiful canyon walls, there is an abundance of something you don’t ordinarily find much of in the desert: water. You can hike up these side canyons with overflowing creeks and waterfalls with lush ferns and greenery, and it’s like you’ve been transported to Tahiti.

Once a gila monster walked through our camp, and late in the day at another site several of us stood around and watched the petals of a white datura flower open up before our very eyes, as if we were viewing it through time-lapse photography. Datura 2

On the mighty Colorado, once you are inside a major rapid, it is impossible to turn or maneuver your raft because the water is too strong and fast. So you must set your boat up straight at the top of the rapid before you enter, and then hang on for dear life once you’re in it. Boats full of people flip quite often on the river, and that was what happened to us on our trip.

But we did not flip on Lava Falls or Sockdolager or some other big rapid on the river. It wasn’t even a rapid, and it didn’t have a name at the time. Because there are long stretches of open, flat water on the Colorado, it is common for the professional boatmen (or boatwomen) to turn the oars over to passengers to give them the experience of rowing. This was what Randy did. A passenger was rowing, and no one noticed the big rock jutting from the water ahead of us. We reacted too late. The power and speed of the river even in this mild stretch caught us off guard, dumping us all into the drink.

Two of the passengers were not strong swimmers and not wearing their life jackets. I towed one to shore, and Randy pulled out the other. Everyone made it to shore safely. But our inflatable six-person rubber raft was wrecked. It filled with water and both ends of it wrapped around the rock. The only way we eventually set it free was by cutting it with a Buck knife.

There were two other boats on the trip, following after us. They picked us up, and the five of us on Randy’s boat squeezed into their boats and rode the rest of the way. We recovered our clothes and gear, stored in waterproof bags, as they floated down the river until getting snagged on rocks or running aground.

Our mishap became a permanent part of rafting lore on the Grand Canyon. It is virtually impossible to lose a raft on the Colorado, because the force and power of the water will almost always push it off a rock or wherever it is stuck. But we had done it. We had achieved the impossible, and if you look in the official guidebook for rafting on the Colorado, at Mile 126, you will see the notation for “Randy’s Rock Rapid.” That is the true story of how it got its name.

So now my old buddy has a rapid named after him, and a book dedicated to his memory. I’m sure he’d happily give them both up to once again breathe air.

Colorado River map 2

Randy’s Rock Rapid, from The Colorado River in Grand Canyon, A Guide, p. 83.

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The Bully of Bret Harte Junior High

On Thursday night I went to “Back to School Night” at my son’s middle school here in Benicia, and I was extremely disappointed because the hallways and classes were clean and neat, the teachers were bright, young and motivated, and all in all it seemed a wonderful place of learning. What the heck has happened to the American educational system anyhow?

I went to Bret Harte Junior High in Hayward. It wasn’t called “middle school;” it was junior high, and it consisted not of the sixth, seventh and eighth grades as Hank’s is, but of seventh and eighth only. A few of my fellow students at Bret Harte were old enough to have mustaches and serious whiskers, and some of the cars they drove were stolen.

Many students at Bret Harte went on to high school, college, and flourishing careers. Others now have their pictures displayed in the “Most Wanted” books at the post office. Bret Harte was so tough that even the rats in the hallways carried guns. In shop class they taught students how to make toy guns out of soap, a potential job skill for those who went to prison and needed to break out.

By far the baddest dude at Bret Harte in my day was Robert Jones, the school bully. He intimidated even the teachers and principal to such a degree that they gave him his own office. The sign outside of it said, “Head Bully.” If you acted up in class, the teachers didn’t threaten to tell your parents, they threatened to send you to Robert Jones and let him deal with you. That straightened you up fast.

Jones was as big as Danny DeVito but he could lick any man twice his size, including cops. He was an equal opportunity bully, picking on both seventh and eighth graders. But seventh graders like myself were his main victims. We used to post lookouts around campus to warn us when he was walking down the hall. One lookout would pass the word to the next, “Jones is coming! Jones is coming!” like Paul Revere warning the colonists about the redcoats.

Jones traveled with a posse of fellow bullies, but he really didn’t need to. He was an army of one. If for some reason our early warning system failed and he happened to appear, unannounced, in the hallway in which you were standing, God help you! Every kid in the hallway froze on the spot, praying to himself, “Please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me.”

When he passed by students pancaked themselves against the wall, trying to become one with the lockers in the hopes that he would not see them and harm them. Being a little guy, Jones had an instinctive grudge against big guys. He seemed to always target the biggest guys, lifting them up bodily and depositing them in the nearest trashcan.

When we were talking with Hank about what he had heard about Benicia Middle School (this was before he started, about two weeks ago), one of the things he mentioned was “canning.” This was what he called the practice of dumping kids in trashcans, which he had heard can happen in middle school and high school. We reassured him that that was unacceptable behavior, and that if he ever saw or heard of anything like that to let us know or his teachers.

I did not share with Hank (or his younger brother) my memories of Robert Jones who, now that years have passed and I am safely away from his clutches, I view with some fondness. After all, he showed great restraint for a bully. After throwing a seventh grader in the trash, he did not then set the can on fire. For this he deserves praise.

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Simple Vacation Pleasures: A Pictorial Essay

Climbing volcanoes and hiking across obsidian landscapes and seeing grand vistas and rafting rivers and riding horses are all fine activities, of course. But everyone knows that the best vacation pleasures are the simplest ones, such as those depicted in the pictorial essay below:

Alaska plate Counting License Plates. So far this trip we’ve seen Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming, and British Columbia.

Making a PuzzleMaking a puzzle…

Finishing Puzzle…and finishing it!

ReadingCurling up with a good book.

Drinks

TennisAnd finally, perhaps the greatest pleasure of all, sending the children off to a tennis clinic for a couple of hours to give their parents a little time to themselves.

Please note: We’re off to the Columbia River Gorge and Portland tomorrow, and I’m not sure if I’ll have time to do any more vacation postings. If so, thank you so much, dear readers, for your patience and understanding in this perhaps self-indulgent enterprise, and I look forward to resuming my normal blogging activities shortly.

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